King Edward Point Diary – February 2011

28 February, 2011 King Edward Point

With some incredibly warm and sunny weather everyone on base has been making the most of the magnificent scenery, taking photos and getting out walking in the mountains whenever the opportunity arrives.

One of my main jobs this summer has been to GPS tag female fur seals. This allows me to see where the seals are foraging on their feeding trips between spells of suckling their pup. As the season progresses this gets to be a tricky task, with females beginning to moult so precluding them from tagging. The hot weather didn’t help much either making them spend time cooling off in Maiviken river, unfortunately the tags won’t attach to wet fur.

On the 7th it was time for the second fur seal pup weighing of the year. This monitoring happens each month during January, February and March, allowing the growth rate of the pups to be measured, giving an indication of how healthy they are and how well their mothers are foraging. Being around two months old the pups are getting fairly heavy, some up to 16kg, and also feisty too. Weighing 100 pups is hard work, holding them at arm’s length so that they can’t get a hold of you with their sharp teeth – fortunately there are plenty of willing volunteers on base to come over to Maiviken for the day and offer a helping hand.

Our assistant marine biologist (Katie) returned from her survey trip on the “FV Sil”. Not only did she bring hundreds of fish stomachs for analysis but also an additional member for the base in the form of another assistant marine biologist Sue Gregory. Sue has come down from Cambridge to assist in the science programme, until she heads out as an observer on a long line fishing vessel. Their task for the foreseeable future is to sort through the stomach samples, meticulously identifying and weighing the contents.

The tradition of a South Georgia half marathon was upheld again this year. Most of the base took part, being joined by crew of two yachts, Thies and Kiki (Wanderer III) and Lee (Girafa), and two staff members from Grytviken museum, Tony and Julia. There were three categories of competitor again this year, the walkers setting off in the morning, followed later on by the runners and runklers (walk/run). The course is particularly gruelling, tackling Brown Mountain and Deadman’s Pass, a total of 625m ascent before the return to base. The terrain isn’t your ordinary marathon tarmac either, with scree, streams, mud, bogs and very prickly burnet to contend with on the way around. Of the participants Hugh Marsden was attempting to regain the course record after it was broken last year by Richie the electrician. Unfortunately he ended up just seconds outside the record with an impressive time of 1hr 38min 15sec – a slightly contentious result owing to our enforced detour this year around an area of invasive bittercress. Having done no training apart from walking to Maiviken every two days for seal and penguin monitoring, I was very pleased to be the first BAS person to finish in a time of 2hrs 16min 26sec. Well done also to the runklers Andy and Ashley, and walkers Katie and Matt boat who all completed the marathon in excellent times. On the way around the course there was much appreciated enthusiastic support from the walkers and marshalls Matt mech and Sarah Lurcock.

Having been ill for the actual half marathon Rob our Base Commander completed the course at a later date, with an excellent time of 2hrs 3mins. I was the fastest BAS person for a few days anyway!

On the 13th we welcomed half of the South Georgia Heritage Trust Habitat Restoration team to the base. They arrived in style aboard the Marina Svetaeva complete with two helicopters for spreading rat bait, and caused a great deal of interest as they flew off the expedition ship to the hanger in Grytviken, the first ever civilian helicopter flight in South Georgia. Helping the government collect rats for DNA analysis has meant a lot of boating this summer. Every two days there have been trips out to the Greene Peninsula, requiring two of our rigid inflatables to head out each time. Everyone on base gets involved in boating and has training to do so, and it makes a nice change from normal work to get out on the water.

Having quietened down with the seal tagging and monitoring work I was able to get away for a few days holiday on the Barff Peninsula with Matt Boat and Sam. After being dropped off at Corral we trekked over the mountains and down to Rookery Bay. With all our camping gear and cameras our rucksacks were pretty heavy, so we took our time on the walk, and had plenty of photo stops. Our campsite overlooked the bay, and was a short walk from the beach and directly downhill of a gentoo penguin colony. The gentoos provided much amusement as they wandered past camp, often stopping to inspect us, and occasionally coming in to have a nose around. By now the chicks are starting to fledge, watching them chasing their parents running down the hill begging for food was a scene of pure comedy action. On our second day we headed over to the macaroni penguin colony at Rookery Point. We spent the morning sat at the ‘landing pad’ watching the Mac’s as they headed out to sea, or returned from their foraging trips. It’s quite incredible to watch these hardy birds, full of attitude, time their exit of the sea to perfection and start hopping up the rock slab; only to be side swiped by a larger wave and have to start over again.

It was pretty cold on the shore, so we moved up into the tussac to investigate the breeding colony itself. Some parts of the colony have become devoid of tussac through erosion by the penguins, a large part however is enveloped in deep tussac, fertilised by the copious quantities of guano. As the afternoon brightened up we headed off for a walk around the local area, before heading back to camp for dinner. On our third day we explored the area near camp, before heading back over the mountains to Corral, ready for our boat pickup the next day. At Corral there was time to have an explore before dinner, so we went to see a waterfall we had noticed from the boat. Situated in a tight gorge the plunge pool created the perfect play area for the fur seal pups, leaping in and out of the waterfall. The clear water offered the perfect chance to try out my waterproof camera, and the inquisitive pups were quick to come and have a nose at what I was doing.

Later that evening as we sat around our campfire (Matt’s creation). We could see back towards base and the mountainous spine of South Georgia; and above, the clouds were lit up like fire by the setting sun. A stunning end to a brilliant holiday. On our pickup from Corral, Katie, Tommy and Matt Mech were dropped off to have their holiday at Rookery Bay.

Whilst Katie, Tommy and Matt were on holiday we took part in an event called “Go Orange for ‘Indies’”. This annual event in the UK supports the work of independent lifeboats who offer an invaluable service to anyone who ventures on or near the water. One of our boating officers, Matt, who used to volunteer for an independent lifeboat arranged for us to pose in all our orange finery for a photo to support their cause.

After our well earned breaks it was back to work again, but with renewed vigour and a better appreciation for this incredible island we are so fortunate to live on.

Alastair Wilson

Seal & Penguin Biologist