King Edward Point Diary – January 2010

31 January, 2010 King Edward Point

The year two thousand and ten started, as many do, with a party. The New Year’s celebrations at King Edward Point commenced with a formal dinner followed by the inevitable dancing in the some-what crowded bar; with our summer compliment of 17 increased by a visiting yacht and the crew of the Fishery Patrol Vessel, Pharos SG. Later, as the metaphorical bells chimed midnight, everyone gathered on the veranda and the well-rehearsed band (having formed 10 minutes prior to the event) honked, squeaked, tapped and strummed their way through the almost-recognisable Auld Lang Syne.

At the start of the month Luke, Matt and I took a 5-day holiday on the Barff Peninsular, basing ourselves at St Andrew’s Bay. St Andrew’s is a popular destination for the cruise ships because it is home to the largest King penguin colony on South Georgia. Our mode of transport however, was quite different to the tourists’. We were dropped off by Jet Boat and RIB at Sörling Valley (on the opposite side of the Barff peninsular to St Andrew’s Bay) and then walked the 14km to St Andrew’s. All the essentials had to be carried in our rucksacks and this included: tent, fuel, stove, sleeping bag, compass, map, GPS, food, emergency food, 1st aid kit, VHF radios, Iridium phone, SLR cameras and an assortment of spare batteries. A long walk with 18kgs on your back, but it’s undoubtedly worth it and there’s a great sense of satisfaction knowing that you are carrying everything you’ll need (and quite a few things you hopefully won’t).

The sheer number of penguins (over 100,000) makes for an impressive sight and sound (not to mention smell), with huge areas carpeted in black, white, yellow and brown. A cacophony of intricate calls fills your head; it’s amazing to see how individual penguins and chicks manage to find one another amidst the apparent chaos of the colony.

We spent three days camped at St Andrew’s, filling the memory cards of our cameras and taking the time to sit and watch the coming and going of penguins, the feeding of chicks and caring of eggs, the constant scuffles over potential mates and the Giant Petrels and Skuas feeding on the less fortunate individuals. As well as the Kings, St Andrew’s is also a popular spot for Elephant Seals and Fur Seals, but on the second morning we awoke to the sight of new arrivals — an unusual yellow-coated species wishing to take our photographs. We settled down with another cup of tea and a chat with the cruise ship’s expedition leader and observed the 100+ tourists enjoying the sights, in the smug knowledge that we would be fortunate enough to have the place to ourselves again in only a few hours.

January has been a multi-cultural month — on 25th we celebrated Burns Night, with our resident Scots Bridget and Jon leading the way with the Burns Supper speeches and obligatory Ceilidh dancing.

The 26th was Australia Day, so George prepared a quiz, challenging our Australian accents and getting us to decipher Australian words. At first, reading out words like ‘egg nisher’ (air conditioner) and ‘betchery’ (battery) we thought that George was speaking a foreign lengwich but it turned out to be Strine. By the next morning we were all saying “wasn’t lar snoite breeyant”.

This month Alan Huckle (the Falkland Island Commissioner), his wife Helen and Jane Rumble (Foreign Commonwealth Office Head of Polar Regions Unit) spent a week at KEP accompanied by Martin Collins (Director of Fisheries, Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands). This was Jane’s first visit to South Georgia. The purpose of the visit was to give both Alan and Jane an overview of the operations at KEP, allowing them to meet the scientists and support staff working here and ultimately to give them a better understanding of the way things are run and how resources may be better used in the future.

All of the science conducted from King Edward Point is ultimately used for the calculation of fishing quotas for the highly successful Patagonian Toothfish, Mackrel Icefish and Krill fisheries. Jon (zoological field assistant) spends much of his summer monitoring the fur seal population at Maiviken, this includes 2-daily counts of adults and pups, weekly collection of scat samples (to look at the variation in diet), satellite tagging of seals (to monitor where they go to feed) and an assessment of reproductive success (looking at how many pups survive and how well they grow). This month Jon required assistance with the first weighing of fur seal pups and he wasn’t short of volunteers. Pups are weighed on three occasions — in January, February and March, giving valuable data on growth rates and hence foraging-success of the mothers. After a thorough briefing from Jon on the correct way to approach and handle the pups, and how best to cause minimal disturbance, the eight of us successfully weighed 100 pups. The largest pup of the day weighed in at 12.4 kg.

Another subject of Jon’s research are the Macaroni and Gentoo penguins, so in mid-January he and Susan spent two days at Rookery Bay (on the Barff peninsular) conducting this season’s chick census. Last year was a poor krill year and many chicks didn’t survive. This year the numbers of chicks are lower than in average years but all appear healthy which is very good news.

You can read more about Jon’s work in the February diary.

In mid January Mark Belchier & Susan Gregory joined Luke (our resident fisheries scientist) aboard a commercial fishing boat the FV Sil, for a 3-week ground fish survey around South Georgia. Once back on base ‘team fish’ spent a further 2 weeks working up samples from the science trip which mostly involved analysing the stomach contents of 100s of mackerel icefish. The data collected is used to set catch quotas for the South Georgia fishery.

It’s been a busy month over at Grytviken too — 13 cruise ships and 5 yachts visited South Georgia in January bringing 1,300 visitors to the whaling station and museum. Occasionally a cruise ship will offer dinner invites to base members who will give science talks, or spend the evening talking with guests and answer their questions about living and working in South Georgia. It’s a great opportunity for people on base to share their experiences and give others a little insight into our work (it’s also an opportunity to relish in fresh salads and cheese that’s never been frozen!).