King Edward Point Diary – February 2006

28 February, 2006

February – what a month! Where to begin?

Martin had asked if I’d like to go over and help break down the Hound Bay field camp. Daft question – of course I would! Hound Bay’s gorgeous, there were a superb bunch over there, they’d been satellite tagging king penguins. I’d be rather silly not to go over. So the month for me had started in the company of Martin, Phil, Gabi and Katrin, packing up Hound Bay, nipping across to St Andrews and helping retrieve sat tags from the last couple of Penguins.

The camp was a couple of vintage BAS pyramid tents, a third ‘throne room’ tent a safe distance away and the social and organisational hub – the weather haven, a hut-sized, heavy duty ‘tent’, containing battery set, table, benches, shelves and most of the food, as well as radios, laptops, tracking gadgetry, satellite phone, solar panels and other assorted paraphernalia. From the feel of the place, you could tell these guys had had one hell of a good season.

The beaches and ponds around camp were crammed with gangs of fur seal pups. These Jack Russell-sized darlings are hilarious – they are either asleep or chasing around manically, play-fighting and practicing their swimming moves in the shallows. Even their growls are adorable, and many of them really seem to want to get over their fear and get a closer sniff of what you are. Washing up at the shoreline comes with a virtually guaranteed ‘teddy-bear ambush’. There were also plenty of elephant seals around, moulting – they stink like very little else on earth at this time of year, lying on top of each other in their dark, evil smelling anaerobic wallows. We also had some reindeer visitors. One, in particular, is totally unafraid of humans – and will approach to within ten feet of you. They named him ‘Rodney’ – as in ‘Rodney you plonker, you’re supposed to run away from humans’. He really took a shine to Phil.

Then, of course, there were the penguins – the reason for the camp. A small colony, a thousand or so moulters and only 120 pairs of breeders.

The Penguins were impressed by Phil, who demonstrated an ‘almost penguin-like level of intelligence’ in his attempts to communicate with them

We did take a bit of time off for wandering around the Barff peninsula. A couple of times during these wanderings we almost ran into Nick, Sarah and Ali, who were also over camping at Ocean Harbour. On a quick trip into the harbour, we heard from the yacht ‘Theleme we had just missed them – they’d headed one way as we went the other way. Running into other people is not something you expect when you go camping on South Georgia, but we finally caught up with them at the pickup point. As we were heading back to base, Will, Charlotte, Ricky, Asty and Adie were being dropped off for their trip over to see the Macaronis at Rookery. It had been a glorious few days – but I now needed a holiday.

Nature red in tooth and claw. The gull chicks are now pretty much fledged, and they’re constantly making noise on the beach. Ali was watching them from the dining room as a Skua batted a young gull, barely smaller than the Skua itself, straight out of the sky and into the water. It then landed on top of the hapless fledgling and held it down, drowning it. At this point the Skua’s partner joined in and they made short work of the body. We all know Skuas are pretty bold, robust predators, but this was an effortless killing of an animal almost as big as itself.

One of the more pleasant parts of what we do here is in supporting the fisheries observers. Whether this is answering questions, asking them to collect samples, sending news from the outside world or hosting them when the get a chance to come ashore, it’s always pleasant. They work incredibly hard, and it’s always good to see them. Jon Roe came in on the In Sung Ho. An old friend of KEP, it was good to get him ashore.

Martin got picked up from Sorling on the 6th, to work with team fish for a couple of weeks, ploughing through some of the samples from the groundfish survey. Martin never stops, we really should slip some Ritalin in his Barry’s tea at some point – but it’s a really ‘good energy’ to have around. We got a lot done on the Dorada survey, and a lot done in the lab. Who’d have thought that fish stomach contents could be that much fun?

We all thought it was time to settle down to some work, catch up after a month at sea on the groundfish survey, but February seemed to conspire, as the busy summers seem to do here, to throw more (very pleasant) interruptions our way. Shackleton had finally picked up all of the field parties and done their usual ‘we’ll be there tomorrow, hows about a barbie?’ bit. Shack are great, they always lay on loads of good food, drinks and chefs. Another good night, and a chance to say a final cheerio to the Hound Bay crowd, as well as see some old friends, before Shack took the summer biologists and a couple of rock-bashers back to ‘civilisation’.

Just got settled into work after the Shack and the whole island was soon mustered for the arrival of the ‘Prinsendam’ on the 10th. By far the biggest cruise ship ever to visit South Georgia, because of the numbers and potential impact Grytviken was the only place on the island they were allowed in. The museum shop was running aboard and ashore, the post office aboard, and they wanted my talk about the work we do here – twice, as well as inviting a couple of base members on board. It was a mad day, everyone on base was doing something. I think both we and they were a bit nervous to see how a boat that size could visit without adverse impact, but in the end, it was a superb day and a success for all concerned. I even got to experience the decadence of sitting in an open air hot tub in the blazing sun, looking up at Mount Paget from the middle of Cumberland Bay.

12th – It was time for the Third annual South Georgia Half Marathon, to keep the ‘tradition’ going. It didn’t look promising – a huge lack of enthusiasm before the event, a grey sky and a strong breeze greeted us early risers on the morning of the race. The lack of enthusiasm was understandable – I felt justified as billing this as ‘probably the toughest half marathon on earth’. In the event, though, as I suspected, our little community came through with its usual support and enthusiasm. The field was varied, several base members, our government officer, museum assistants, Stuie from Morrisons, some visiting ‘yachties’ and even a couple down from Cambridge, seventeen in all.

The brave souls in the ‘runners’ category at the start – with apologies for the ‘BAS corporate orange’ tights.

Martin and Asty soon pulled ahead, both looking very strong, but in the end, the Mighty Martin Collins won the day, making his unofficial course record from last year official, at an amazing 1 hour 48 minutes. As much of a crowd as you could get at South Georgia was there at the line, Christine had made cookies, the last of Adie’s cake was soon wolfed down by hungry finishers, and Rick and the guys at the finish line made sure everyone was welcomed with plenty of drinks and snacks as well as cheers.

Grytviken has had more yachts visiting this year than ever before. There were up to six yachts at a time – the whaling station became South Georgia’s first ‘Marina’. You hear talk of ‘is this the thin end of the wedge?’ – but the fact remains that simply getting out here means that only the few people who seriously want to get here, and really know what they’re doing would even consider the journey. Tevakenui, Illawong, Theleme – the yachts and ‘yachties’ who make it down here always have a certain something about them, and we have had some good times with some fantastic people this summer.

Our rugged, hard working boatmen had a busy month, when they weren’t running around for the government, with rec trips, or taking Rod Downie around the huts, they were servicing jetboats and outboards, and Rick even managed to build a superbly engineered trailer for his beloved dotty boat. On the 13th to the 17th, as well as running Steve and Emma, and Christine and Asty out on some much-needed R&R, the boat team, aided by their ace wing-persons Ali and Charlotte, took Rod around the Cumberland Bay huts to do an environmental assessment/cleanup. The huts have been there for years, have stood up to the climate beautifully, but after several regimes of folks living and working on the island, a good thorough cleanup was due. Even South Georgia has beach debris, and the guys put in a couple of long days.

On the 18th myself and Adrian dutifully agreed to go back to St Andrews Bay, to accompany and assist Rod, doing the Sorling/St Andrews field hut circuit, removing Asbestos and checking for other environmental issues. One of those ‘chores’ you accept with a certain amount of glee. We were dropped off with Rod, Big Al and Dewie from Morrisons, and helped them break down and shift the reindeer enclosures that had been in the Sorling valley for years, collecting the bits on the beach to be picked up later that morning, along with Al, Dewie, Christine and Asty. Myself, Adie and Rod then headed off to St Andrews, meeting Chris and Asty coming back the other way.

Myself and Adie were just there as guides, so once over there there was nothing for us to do but hang out with the wildlife while Rod ‘did his stuff’. Despite the weather seriously ‘crapping out’ for the return journey, it was a fantastic couple of days, good company, good slogs around the hills and the amazing wildlife of St Andrews. Adrian definitely deserves a Polar Medal for carrying the ten kilos of triple-bagged asbestos, plus his regular pack, the ten miles of hyper-rugged terrain back from St Andrews.

As the old huts were given a new bill of health, the legendary Scobie Pye, along with his Tasmanian co-chippies Tussock and Ferret, were preparing and building a new ‘Hut’ for Carlita. The reason for the inverted commas is that it’s more like a luxury log cabin than just a hut, a beautiful bit of craftsmanship. Scobie put in a lot of the original huts in the ’70s, which are still standing strong – and his art has improved with age. His team were also here to prepare the boardwalks for Prion Island, the one place on South Georgia where visitors are allowed to see Wandering Albatrosses on their nests. Scobie and team were taken round to Carlita on the 21st to put up their new masterpiece at Carlita.

February should have been winding down, but it was just about to shift up a gear. On the 23rd the Explorer II arrived, bearing VIPs. Howard Pearce, Commisioner of the Falklands and South Georgia, arrived with his wife Carolina and their new daughter, Suzanna. They really seem to love it here, and you get the impression that it’s much simpler and more chilled here than their usual hectic social schedule in Stanley not to mention that they are just blown away by the wildlife.

Paul Sutherland was also in again, putting the finishing touches to over two years of work on his National Geographic article on Toothfish. He’s still not entirely sure what to make of us funny brits, but is good to have around, and was on fine form. He was after shots of team fish at work, and I became acutely aware that perhaps my one chance of immortality in the pages of Nat Geo may well be wearing this ludicrous ‘Coco the clown’ charity haircut.

Also in, from Cambridge, were Paul Rodhouse, looking over the work we ‘team fishies’ were doing, and Les Whittamore, in for his annual look at how things are going on base.

Last but by no means least, the return of ‘Stuffin’ Steve Massam, everyone’s favourite taxidermist. Steve’s a true artist and a true gent, back in for a couple of months doing his magic at the museum.

The day they arrived coincided with an exciting moment, long awaited. Last year, Paul McCarthy, an observer working on one of South Georgia’s Toothfish longliners had telexed to say they’d had a ‘Colossal’ Squid hooked while it tried to take a toothfish from the line. After a battle, the squid’s head and tentacles were recovered, boxed, and frozen, then sent here to KEP. It’s not every day you get to measure, illustrate, record and sample a large adult ‘colossal’ squid, and we’d been looking forward to it. With Martin and Paul, both serious ‘squidophiles’, on base, this was the day to do it.

A strange spectacle, we put it out on the veranda (would have been a tight squeeze and poor light in the lab, and it was rather a nice morning), and the five of us, in white coats and examination gloves, fussed, photographed and measured. Plenty of passing interest from other base members and visitors, including ‘Stuffin’ Steve. For him this was a huge and unexpected bonus, and with his usual enthusiasm he was soon stuck in, making casts and moulds, before he’d even had time to drop off his bags.

Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni is the squid that makes up a large chunk of the diet of Sperm whales in the Southern Ocean, and purely based on the size and number of Sperm Whales, there are a lot of these squid down there. Only a very few whole specimens have ever been seen, though, certainly only a handful anything like this size. The tentacles were a little over 2 metres long, the arms a little over a metre, as big around as my wrist, tough, muscular and elastic. The powerful buccal mass around the beak was about the size of a pineapple. My job was to take measurements and do a detailed illustration of the tentacle suckers, Will and Sarah also measuring and doing sucker counts, overseen by Paul and Martin, who photographed and recorded everything.

The coin-sized suckers nearest the mouth, and the smaller ones at the tips of the tentacles, had small toothed sucker rings to prevent the suckers slipping. In the middle part of the arms, though, were suckers with large toothlike hooks (hence Mesonychoteuthis = ‘Middle-hooked squid’). All these suckers pivoted on muscular stalks. Even more impressive were the sharp, hook-toothed modified suckers on the tentacle clubs, again on muscular pivots. Opened and stretched out, the front of the animal makes an enormous cone of inward pointing, individually controllable teeth – effectively an enormous, funnel shaped mouth. Once the hooked tentacles have hold, the beak and rasping tongue, or radula, tear large chunks out of the prey – I can’t imagine even large prey items like toothfish lasting very long.

One reason the VIPs are here is to oversee the opening of the new Bird Island base – a replacement to the old base at Bird Island – the jewel of South G’s crown. I have been hoping, without much hope, for a chance to get there – I’ve wanted to go ever since I saw David Attenborough do a documentary on Wanderers years ago. Logistics make it difficult to get there and back, and BAS guard it pretty jealously from almost everyone – it’s pristene, rat-free, and tourists are most definitely not allowed, only a very few film crews (BBC, Ellen Macarthur, a handful of others) ever get permission to go there. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, and as they were going up and straight back, I figured what could I lose in putting in the request. The all clear came through, and all of a sudden I was the kid who’d been given too much sugar.

The journey up in itself was amazing – we went via several of the old whaling stations, and Richard, skipper of the Sigma, gives us a display of boat handling at its best, taking us right into the bays. Rusty old stations generally don’t grab me. I often get asked on cruise ships ‘why don’t they get rid of these barbaric places?’ – I guess some people want their history sanitised. I personally think reminders of our follies are a good thing, and lets not forget the incredible endurance and fortitude it took to make the first settlements on this island. I digress!!

Prince Olaf Harbour, though, is a whaling station that does actually grab me, though. Small and very derelict, it’s the setting that impresses us all, even in the grey drizzle. At the back of a deep, rocky bay, an improbably tall peak sits behind the small station, and it’s framed by jagged peaks along the sides of the bay. The bay itself has hillocks, rock outcrops, coves, and, nestled in amongst them at the back of the bay are tens of thousands of fur seals. The water in the shallows is boiling with them – you can tell we’re approaching the ‘epicentre’ – the concentration of wildlife is like nothing any of us have seen – and we’re still not at the centre of the abundance of South Georgia’s marine life.

Even here, though, I’m impatient to move on – because I know our final destination. Up at four the next morning to a rather grey sunrise, looking for spouts as we approach the island. We see a few signs, including the tallest spout I’ve ever seen, but I never saw what it was attached to. A couple of weeks ago one of the cruise ships had what may be the largest sighting of feeding whales seen on earth in the last seventy years off Shag rocks, including 18 blue whales.

Everywhere we look there are Fur seals and Macaroni penguins porpoising and there are Albatrosses all around us. The North side of Bird Island is a face of jagged cliffs straight out from the sea, but as we move around, we see the unmistakeable ‘Big Mac’. A huge dark pink smear at the corner of the island – faeces made pink by krill, darkened by Themisto Amphipods. Big Mac refers to the tens of thousands of Macaroni Penguins that breed there, now mostly offshore, their breeding season nearly over. As we get closer we can see the rolling grassy hills dotted with white – for me this is what it’s about – nesting Wandering Albatrosses – about an eighth of the world nesting population on this island, and because it’s South G, and things just grow better at South G, the biggest seabirds of them all.

On the way in, the spectacular backdrop of Willis island, and a bit of a show – a smallish Right Whale breaching next to the jetty. The sun broke through, and we could now see the south side of the island.

Bird Island is, quite simply, the most incredible, beautiful part of the world I’ve ever seen. The topography is pure ‘Jurassic Park’, green, rugged, dramatic. For a two-mile-long island, there’s an awful lot of hill. The Wanderers may be the big attraction for me, but they are the tiny minority of the wildlife of the island. The colonies of Blackbrows and Greyheads along the more rugged bits of cliff are vast, and you hardly even notice the tens of thousands of Petrels. Then you get down to sea level, and the shoreline literally fizzes with Fur seals. Even this late in the season, after the adult bulls and the non-breeders have gone offshore, the mums and pups are incredibly dense on the ground.

We were met at the jetty by Helen, who myself and Will know from conference last year. Helen’s a vet by trade, really good value, and down here she’s ‘Giant Petrel and Penguin girl’. We soon meet the rest of the team, the guys with some of the most envied jobs in the world, including Vicky, who we also know – she was KEP Base Commander when we arrived down here. They are a lovely crowd, and we can immediately see the reason behind the legend of BAS: smallest base – four people in the winter. It’s not just the folks here to meet us, though. As we climb onto the jetty, hundreds of fur seal pups lollop up in their ‘play-charge’ – as usual, not sure what to do when you fail to run away. It’s a mind-blowing place. The grass is always greener!!

Also at BI is Jon Shanklin, a meteorologist who just happens to be one of the BAS team who discovered the ozone hole. I’m once again reminded that with the frustrations of small base life, of remote living and of BAS, you do stumble across some pretty amazing folks with this organisation. The plusses in being here and being involved in BAS massively outweigh any minuses.

A tour around the new, and very impressive Bird Island facility, which is energy efficient, minimalist but beautifully finished – all things I value. I’d enjoy it in any other circumstance, but I was like a ten year old waiting in the queue to get into Disneyland. Couldn’t stand still. The opening ceremony and speeches were actually very nicely delivered, but to me they were eating into ‘wildlife-time’. I was feeling a little guilty for under-appreciating the history and heritage of the place – the talent and passion of the people who built and worked BI, which really came through in the speeches. Inside, champagne and more speeches. Sarah, who’s been here over two years and is soon going back to ‘the real world’, has made nibbles. They were delicious, but I wasn’t hungry, and I must have looked comically impatient.

In the event we had plenty of time. The company was good, and we headed off, up the stream strewn with the carcasses of the big Fur Seal bulls who came second in fights, got fevers from their injuries and came to the cool stream to die. We climbed up steeply, through fur seals who had taken over the tussock right up to the edges of where the wanderers nest. A Wanderer is taller than a fur seal, and has a longer reach and a huge, hooked beak – they can see off females and young bulls. If the big bulls ever spread up here, though!!

Our first Wanderer on its nest was surrounded by furries, and supremely unconcerned. I couldn’t stop smiling, and I looked across and Steve and Will were the same. This was once in a lifetime stuff. It was the size of a short necked swan, apart from the head and beak, which were much, much bigger. South Georgia’s Wanderers are known as ‘Snowy Albatrosses’, the largest and whitest subspecies, and they grow larger here than anywhere else. They are incredibly, improbably elegant, with soft, porcelain white plumage. They were sitting on hatching eggs – even for the size of the bird the eggs are big, and the chick may take five days to fight its way out. This means that their parents were mostly sitting there, not doing a great deal. Most of them seem to be the larger, heavier browed and heavier billed males. Over the top onto the plateau, and there are hundreds of them spaced out over the island. This part of BI looks like grassy hills in Wales or Scotland – apart from the tussock, and of course, these giant birds.

One very happy beaker, fulfilling a lifetime ambition. This is what this stupid haircut’s all about!

Then over to the cliff overlooking Big Mac. The penguins have thinned out, but our vantage point is in the middle of a Grey Headed Albatross colony. The month-old chicks were improbably fluffy and cute, their parents were joined by Blackbrows and Sooties as they cruised overhead, sometimes inches away past our vantage point, which seemed to be on the final approach vector for many of them.

All too soon, it was time to head back, and I dawdled at the back of the group. My big camera’s card was full, so I fired off a few on the pocket camera, rolled off some video. My bag was hanging open, camera gear everywhere, and we have been told ‘bodgers’ (the sticks you hold out to a fur seal’s whiskers to stop it charging) were mandatory. I didn’t have enough hands.

On the way down, we met the legendary Wendy. Wendy’s a fur seal who likes humans (In particular Isaac, who she’s known for two years). She howled a greeting when we approached, and although the number of people made her nervous, hung around and seemed to love being stroked and scratched. Stroking a fur seal is normally a really bad idea, and they guys do say she sometimes gets a bit ‘bitey’ – and her teeth are covered in the usual orangey brown bacterial muck – but she stays around and because we move slowly and speak softly, climbs up onto a tussock lump for a scratch. Her fur is luxuriant, far softer than I would imagine, and I can see why it was considered a high enough quality in the nineteenth century for these animals to be hunted almost to extinction. We say a sad farewell, extending an invitation – that we unfortunately have little hope of the opportunity for – for them to come and visit us at some point.

Sarah, Robin, Donald and Helen – an ace crowd of people, BAS at its best

A nice bit of a boating run when we got back – two jets and a RIB round into Cumberland East Bay to take Howard and the other VIPs over to open the new Carlita hut, and to pick up Scobie and gang. Suzanna Pearce put her footprint on the hut that was to be named ‘Suzanna hut’ in her honour. A glorious sunny day, and the large bergs in the bay got Paul some shots that surely will grace National Geographic. One of those days when we all got to thoroughly enjoy working in the boats.

Then back to base, and on with serious business. Paul wanted photos of the research team – that’s us – catching Toothfish. Good to see a man enthusing in his work, and a lot of fun working with the RIB alongside Quest to ‘get that shot’. Catching a toothfish is by no means a guarantee, and we weren’t at all sure he was going to get what he was after. When the net came up, lo and behold, three toothfish! The commissioner, as well as the two Pauls, were very happy, and we had a hint of what it’s like to be Madonna, as our every move was photographed from all angles as we hauled, brought ashore and untangled the net–

We’ve never had such an audience sorting out nets before!

So that was February – and we’re still recovering. For now, from me, to friends and family, miss you all, see you in the new year. In particular, a huge hug and all my love to Alex.