King Edward Point Diary – November 2006

30 November, 2006 King Edward Point

There really can’t be many experiences on earth like a South Georgia spring. Even when you’re looking forward to it, it grabs you. And it’s that bit more special because, for most of us on base, we’re leaving in a few weeks, after two years on the island – so it’s our third and farewell spring here. It’s November already, and time is flying.

The elephant seals are gradually getting more exhausted – they haven’t eaten for weeks, and they’re all deflating fast. The cows have all had the energy literally sucked out of them by their pups. The huddles of them along the beach went from fat, swollen slugs to sleeker, loose-skinned creatures in a matter of days. Through a combination of overcrowding, hunger, pups nagging for milk and bulls harassing for sex, they gradually got grumpier, and the beach went through irregular cycles of dozing and squabbling throughout the day – and through the night, so every morning at breakfast there’s someone looking bleary-eyed and cursing our noisy neighbours.

Even our beachmaster ‘Split-nose’ is finally looking rather deflated.

As most females have weaned their pups, mated and headed offshore to feed, and exhaustion has the bulls doing the same, mid-November leaves us with emptying beaches and piles of adorable weaners around the jetty. Unlike their exhausted parents, the pups have gained huge amounts of bodyweight from their mother’s butter-rich milk. The bags of bones that appeared a couple of weeks ago are now solid little slugs of concentrated energy. Most are so rotund they can barely move, but lie there, soaking up the nutrients, buildling bones and muscle. Later in the month they start to play around in the shallow water. They aren’t the natural water babies you might expect from the supreme breath hold diver among all seals. Occasionally one of them will roll off the jetty into deep water, and splash, ‘doggy paddle’ to shore, holding it’s head high in panic as it flails for the safety of the shallows. Wide eyed and dopey, when they are not asleep, they are discovering kelp, stones and seagulls. They will never again be this cute.

As we lose the elephant seals, the next shift arrives to claim the beaches. Our neurotic, ‘hyper-caffeinated’ Fur Seals are arriving. The regular breeding beaches already have evenly spaced, well fed bulls holding turf, and for my second year in a row, we have an increase in the number of breeding-condition bulls at the point. We had a couple of pups born along the beach last year, but I’d put money on this being a ‘proper’ breeding beach this year, with at least one full-sized harem.

For now, the big bulls are relaxed, and the younger animals are constantly scrapping and playing. Over the next couple of weeks, though, it’ll get serious. They may not have the bulk of elephant seals, but they’re still a very powerful 200 kilos, and they move like lightning – fights over beachfront breeding territory are pretty spectacular.

The gentler wildlife is here, too. Gentoos have been arriving on the beaches the last couple of weeks, one huddle bringing a single Chinstrap penguin with them. He was following along behind, looking like the new kid in the playground, desperately wanting to be part of this gang.

One of the greatest simple pleasures here is looking out of the window when you wake up, and seeing a group of King Penguins on the beach. They started arriving a while back, but we now finally have a group of moulters sitting outside our rooms. They’ll be here for a few weeks, squeezing out a bright new plumage ready for the breeding season. When they arrive, they already look so splendid it’s hard to see that they need to replace their feathers. When you see them post-moult, though, you can see it’s worth it. It’s as if someone has turned up the colour saturation. Art and design has rarely produced anything that comes close to the form, colour and pattern of a King Penguin.

Some of the folks on base have been making use of a short period of calm before the summer visitors – and our replacements – descend upon us. A spate of camping trips. Pat and Sarah finally found a free window for their getaway, and had a couple of days at Jason Harbour. Ade took Serita and Niall, who hadn’t seen the wonders of the Barff Peninsula, across to Ocean Harbour, while Andy – never neglectful of his Base Commander duty to become familiar with the entire area – took Miriam across to Coral Bay, and Sarah even managed to persuade Rick to head off on one last camping trip, again to Ocean Harbour.

The camping trips finished in time for the unofficial start of silly season. Once the summer visitors start appearing here – and of course they arrive soon after the wildlife starts to gather – the whole feel of the place changes. From our quiet winter, we are suddenly constantly entertaining and being entertained. Noone gets here by accident, and I don’t remember anyone ever not being bowled over by the place, so this infectious enthusiasm is everywhere.

One anticipated event was the arrival of ‘Pharos SG’, the new, sleeker fishery patrol vessel. Captain Ken brought with him some familiar faces among the crew, as well as among the guys from Morrisons, here for the summer to start putting together the hydro power system at Gull Lake dam, as well as some renovations at the museum. With them came a strange machine – a red pickup. For most of us, this is the first car we’ve seen in two years – and it looks completely out of place here.

The Image Impact film crew arrived back, along with Marie-Paul and the gang from Le Sourire. They’ve had an amazing time, trying to film enough for a five hour Animal Planet and Channel 5 series, on an incredibly tight schedule. They’d got some fantastic footage, from Elephant seal births and everything St Andrews Bay has to offer, to Sooty Albatross pair flying. They even got down to see the Weddell Seals with their pups at Larsen Harbour. They arrived in just ahead of Pharos, to pick up a hard drive, after one of theirs had locked up. Once they had the part they needed, they had a single day in which to use it to get some editing done before sending out the film when the boat left.

In the end they were editing all day and through the night, finishing and handing over their edited film 20 minutes before the Pharos sailed. They allowed themselves a day to sleep and have a little time off, before heading back out to get yet more shots at Bird Island.

The small former soviet research vessels seem to have a traditional ‘Grytviken Barbecue’, and the Multanovsky invited us on for the first one of the season. The expedition staff we see season to season are fantastic, and for the first on-board barbie Martin and Olle were back with the fair Katarina, leading a group of ‘extreme wine tasters’ from Sweden. Food and atmosphere were, as expected – excellent.

Molchanov should have been next, but couldn’t get ashore thanks to an intense, but thankfully brief spell of 50 to 60 knot winds. So then it was Maryshev, with a thoroughly pleasant and cosmopolitan crowd, led by Morton and Troels.

After fourteen years on South Georgia, Tim and Pauline are getting ready to leave. They’ve built up the museum, bit by bit, to where it is today, but of course that’s just one small part of what they’ve brought South Georgia. Governors, BAS staff, the military and visitors have come and gone, but they’ve been there, and helped keep those running this island moving in good directions. Pat and Sarah had everyone round for a last dinner with them, and Charlotte and Serita masterminded a farewell picnic by the church at Grytviken. T & P are headed to New Zealand, but, of course, this is not the last they’ll see of South Georgia – they already have plans to lead groups on luxury vessels coming down here next year.

We had one night off to from our hectic social schedule, when ‘beyond endurance’ arrived on the ‘Ushuaia’. The brainchild of mountaineer and adventurer Pat Falvey, this expedition was a collection of Irish folk from all walks of life, following the trail of Irish explorers such as Tom Crean and, of course, Ernest Shackleton. Pat’s motto goes something along the lines of ‘there is no such thing as ordinary people – they can all achieve extraordinary things’. So, he put out an advert asking for folks to attempt to retrace Shackleton’s epic crossing of South Georgia – and got two and a half thousand responses. The sixty-odd who were finally given spaces were united by their Irishness, the party atmosphere they had cultivated, and by their enthusiasm.

We’d been warned that they’d just succeeded at the crossing, and were planning on a serious party. Pat and myself were the KEP contingent, and arrived on board to hear that even at dinner, the cheers and atmosphere were boiling over. Pat had said before we left ‘we’ll just stay for a couple’ – not sure who he was trying to kid. We all retired to the bar after dinner, and the singing and celebrating started. Pat didn’t resist for long – right into the thick of it, grabbing a guitar, strumming and singing. He was bloody good, too, and of course they adored him – after all, with a name like Pat, he had to be all right. They had a slightly late start the next day, but several arrived on base for a look around, and to present Martony with a box of Barry’s Tea from back home.

A whole host more visitors, and of course the ones we have been waiting for – the new base team. Everyone but Martony is leaving in the next few weeks, most of us after two years on this rather pleasant little rock. Fantastic – if a little strange, to finally meet the people who’ll be taking over.

Of course it’s a big deal, in a different way, for the new team, too – arriving in what will be home for one or two years. Andy the base commander has been here for a few weeks now, and is already in and buzzing about South Georgia – he’s been looking forward to getting his team in place. They all arrived full of enthusiasm, and what a pleasant crowd of people – it’s already shaping up to be a superb season.

Jenn and Charlotte are two thirds of the new team fish. They’ve already bonded, and arrive to a beach full of penguins and seals, with big grins on their faces. We all remember arriving two years ago with a similar ‘calm giddiness’. Mel’s the new doctor, Andrew the electrician, Gareth the mechanic and Charles the boatman. Different personalities, ones that look like they complement each other well, all taking in their new home, savouring their new environment in their own ways.

Handover period is a bit crazy for everyone. Ash is only here for a few more days, so has to really cram to get through field training with the new folks. Martony has boat training ready, and as he is the only person staying on for next year, he’s also meeting for the first time the people he’ll be sharing this little chunk of earth with for the next twelve months. Andy, Pat and Charlotte all need the new team for their respective briefings and inductions before they can start handovers with the rest of us.

Chatting with the new team in the bar the first evening, and we realised that they hadn’t met the local wildlife or had a good walk around base. The light was failing and we all seemed to have freshly filled glasses of wine, but this was too much of an oversight, so we wandered up to Hope Point. Plenty of really well fed bull fur seals all over the point, but still relatively calm because the cows haven’t arrived yet. The guys are obviously bowled over by our residents, and there’s this infectious, slightly giddy enthusiasm. We went down to the beach through the tussock, straining to tell the difference between fur seals and weaners in the twilight. Then along the beach, past the huddles of King and Gentoo Penguins to the last remaining Elephant seals, with the three big bulls squaring off and nearly putting on an end of season fight display for us.

Tim and Pauline’s inevitable last day came round, and the gorgeous morning meant that a handful of us joined them for one last ski, and one last cup of tea with cake at the cottage. Ski trips, or tea and cakes with Pauline and Tim, have been South Georgia highlights for many people over the last fourteen years. They left on Explorer 2, and we set off some flares as we waved from the beach, a small mark of farewell for what they have given to South Georgia, and to so many of the folks fortunate enough to have passed through this little island.

Time to immerse in handovers, introducing the new team to the delights of working aboard Quest, of earlies and lates, and the dreaded otoliths. For others, it’s fire alarms, or generators, or the medical centre, or boating in the bay.

We woke up to a fresh blanket of snow, and as we were sat around the breakfast table, a large huddle of Kings came ashore. The snow was almost too deep for their little legs, and they made their way along, some on their bellies, some staggering, some managing a walk, in the clean snow. All very ‘March of the Penguins’, and the new team (and the old team) loved it, Jenn, Miriam and Charlotte running for their cameras.

We haven’t caught the culprits yet, but a fair few of the Kings are arriving on shore with fresh injuries. There are a lot of hormoned-up bull fur seals around, and several of the Kings have tell-tale puncture wounds, not necessarily from predatory behaviour but from aggressive ‘play’ and just plain ‘lashing out’. Some of the Kings, however, have much bigger tearing wounds – we suspect there are Leopard Seals around, taking advantage of the fattened penguins heading ashore to moult. The penguins are pretty tough, and seem to be able to recover from some fairly horrific-looking wounds. Because they are coming ashore to moult, their energy reserves are high, and we like to think that their recovery prospects are good.

Probably the most pleasant aspect to handover is showing the new folks their new playground. Charlotte, Ade and myself introduced Mel and Andrew to the delights of Rookery Bay, of Fur Seals in breeding season, to Sooty Albatrosses, to trudging over South Georgia’s terrain through unexpectedly deep snow, and, of course, to Macaroni Penguins. The cold sleet, grey skies and wet ground and thigh deep snow en route made this a bit of a baptism by fire, but didn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. The new folks were so obviously loving their new world, and for the others it was a chance for just a bit more farewell to South G.

Last to arrive of the new team is Chief Scientist Anjali, who arrived via an expedition ship while we were away camping. Anjali is a rare concentration of human energy, and we all suspect that she and South Georgia could be a good combination.

On top of being in the thick of handovers, the summer visitors, whether they are yachts or cruise ships, keep on coming, and it seems like every night we’re entertaining or being entertained. The outgoing team are trying to make plans and arrangements for the future, the new team are getting a feel for their new home, new job and new life. There’s potential for this period to be rather weird for everyone, certainly a month of major upheavals for almost all of us, but the feel is overwhelmingly positive.

Whirlwind visits this month from Alison Stewart and Richard McKee. Alison runs the South Georgia Heritage Trust – which means that among many other things she’s responsible for overseeing the museum. A chance for her to get a feel for the place, to see how the new museum team are getting along, and to plan for moving things forward. Richard is a former member of that fortunate group of people who have lived on South Georgia, and has lived in the Falklands since, one of the tiny but very effective South Georgia Government team managing the island. As well as a chance for him to touch base with the island, he also takes the chance to have a mini-forum with residents incoming and outgoing, sharing viewpoints, discussing plans and ideas for the future, and most importantly making contact. The government team seem to be constantly run ragged, and rarely have time to make it down here, but those visits they do manage seem to be a superb chance for everyone involved with this place to touch base, to synchronise.

Our most neurotic residents have been getting worse, and the reason is breeding season. The first few fur seal cows started arriving ashore in the last few days of November, which served to agitate and excite the mass of fat and healthy bulls whose hormonal musk has been wafting around base for the last few weeks. The first pups were seen at Maiviken and near Shackleton’s grave during the last week in November. Territories have been staked out along the beaches, and this is the time of year when coastal travel becomes ‘interesting’.

It’s time for many of us to leave. Filey’s favorite son Rick left toward the end of the month, after two solid years, and the rest of us will follow soon. The world seems to have changed in our absence, and anticipation of reunions with friends and family, and of plans for the future mixes with farewells to some good memories, good people, good times, and to this amazing place – one of the most pristine, wild, alive places on earth.

To all those folks I’ve been missing (you know who you are) – I look forward to seeing most of you really soon, and all of you as soon as I get a chance. In particular, all my love to my favorite human being – I can’t wait to see you, my little penguin fan (you definitely know who you are!).