King Edward Point Diary – October 2008

31 October, 2008 King Edward Point

With a whirlwind of events one after the other, October seemed to be over as soon as it began, the weather changed from winter to spring, and in one day of torrential rain a huge amount of the snow base was lost.

Much of the wildlife started to make its way back to the island: seals, terns and skuas arrived on a daily basis.

The elephant seal breeding season started with the bull seals patrolling the beachfront looking for a prime place to make their claim, the females slowly arrived and were encouraged to beach where the male, in pursuit, wanted them.

It’s a long slow noisy process during which the males bellow at each other as a warning to keep off their patch; when bellowing is not enough a fight usually takes place — these huge animals can be incredibly agile when they have to be. The fights are normally very short with the heavier males winning, but when evenly matched the fights can last minutes with some terrible injuries inflicted.

The huge old bulls need only bellow when a smaller bull shows up and that alone is enough to make them stay well clear of his territory, fear is very evident in the young bull’s eyes.

As soon as the females started to give birth the birds were at the ready. It’s quite a gruesome sight — at the first indication of a pup being born the giant petrels, skuas and gulls gather for a meal of the afterbirth and umbilical cord. They are relentless in harassing the mother and pup until they are satisfied there is nothing left to eat. It’s raw nature only metres away from where we all live.

If the pup is very weak or the mother not attentive enough the birds will make a meal of it in no time. The bulls have no paternal part to play, in fact in some cases the pups are crushed as the males do battle.

Having only arrived at the end of November last year, myself and some of the others had missed the whole pupping season, it was a real privilege to see it from start to finish

Early in the month the government officer, (Pat Lurcock), myself and the base commander (Mairi Macleod) set out on a camping trip to St Andrews Bay. St Andrews is situated to the south-east of Cumberland bay where King Edward Point is located. Using one of the stations harbour launches it’s only an hour and a half away but walking over the Barff peninsula it takes a good eight hours depending on conditions. The trek took us through valleys, streams, bogs, snow and loose rock. No-one’s pack was light; we all carried enough emergency equipment, food, fuel, stoves and camping gear to keep us going for five days, as well as the compulsory camera gear.

After eight hours we finally descended down the slope into St Andrew’s bay, there is a small wooden hut set back from the beach and this is where we were to camp for the duration of our stay. Coincidentally we overlapped with a BBC film crew who had been based at St Andrews for a number of weeks, their prime role had been to capture the Bull elephant seals fighting as well as the everyday activities of the hundreds of thousands of king penguins.

The BBC film crew had chartered the Golden Fleece a very well known expedition motor sailing yacht which has been used in many of the BBC’s expeditions in the south Atlantic and southern ocean. It was great pleasure for us all to meet the man behind the wheel of the Golden Fleece; Jerome Poncet who has been sailing these waters for over 30 years and is one of the modern day pioneers of this area. His yacht is chartered by everyone from crazy surfers, who wish to experience the ice cold waves, to scientists monitoring the animal populations.

A bit of exceptional luck allowed us two days of sunny weather to watch and photograph the incredible array of wildlife, many an hour was spent quizzing Martin and Chadden the BBC cameramen on the pros and cons of being in the wildlife movie business. Its not as glamorous as we would all like to think, they were up at the crack of dawn each day waiting till sunset for the chance to film, with a month on location they were not expecting to leave with much more than 15 hours of footage, and after editing only a tiny percentage of that would ever make it to screen. The footage from their stay on South Georgia is for a BBC documentary called Frozen Planet, by 2010 enough footage will have been filmed in various cold locations around the world and it should be released shortly after.

A few days after arriving back at King Edward Point Morrison’s construction team arrived on the Island to continue with the installation of the hydro electric system. Most of the guys had been here last year so it was great to catch up with them all.

The whaling station at Grytviken had hydro electric power when it was in use earlier this century. Now a completely new system has been installed the only things the two share is the lake than supplies the water to turn the turbine and the dam to control the level of the lake, the dam has had some major strengthening work to bring it up to specification.

With the price of fuel, and the maintenance costs of running generators and oil fired boilers, the hydro scheme will be of great benefit to the Island — not only with the annual running costs, but it will be environmentally beneficial too. Thankfully, because of the warm spring weather and lack of snow the construction team had a flying start in getting their camp up and running again and digging the trench for the high voltage cable round the cove.

Nearing the end of the month, four of us from King Edward Point traveled on board the fisheries patrol vessel (Pharos SG) to Prion Island; this is home to many sea birds and a small songbird the South Georgia pipit.

A census is carried out a number of times each year on the resident Wandering Albatross. Jennifer Lawson the chief scientist at KEP was in charge of operations; Charles Swift the head boatman was our nest finder and guide. Armed with a map of the nest sites and a GPS, Rachel Hadden the base doctor measured off various distances and snow depth around the nests and I photographed the nest sites. It was a busy five hours but what a great experience to see these huge birds on land, fortunately all the chicks were accounted for with no fatalities since the last survey.

The South Georgia Pipit, which I had never seen seemed so out of place in such a wild and rugged environment, they are surrounded by huge sea birds that could literally swallow them whole. They do however survive extremely well, and are in such abundance we never seemed to be more than a few meters away from one.

Giant petrels and Skuas nest in and around the Albatross nests, in one wanderers nest we found two fishing hooks, incredible to think the bird will have swallowed the hook with the bait and managed to regurgitate it unharmed; most birds are not so lucky with many dying each year when hooked accidentally by fishermen, and are subsequently drowned — they are under a major threat from fishermen. The adult birds can travel thousands of miles looking for food and will be away from the chick for weeks at a time, if the parents are killed the chick literally starves to death. Much work has been done to monitor and modify the way fisherman deploy their bait, but because of the huge distances the birds travel some rogue fishermen are still not practising the new measures and so many birds are dying each year. All the fishing vessels operating in South Georgia waters have observers on board to monitor fishing regulations, and albatross fatality rates; fortunately this is now down to an acceptable level.

At the very end of the month we all paid a sad farewell to Quest a small inshore fishing vessel that had been used at King Edward Point for many years. Each week, weather permitting, the scientists at KEP would go out into Cumberland bay with one or more of the boatmen to catch plankton and fish larvae specimens to analyze back in the lab, set nets for adult fish and collect water temperature and salinity data. Due to the age of the vessel and a slight change in the science direction she was packed up and sent out to the Falklands for resale.

The first of many private yachts checked in this month, and the first cruise ship dropped off the museum curator and her partner, and Steve the taxidermist. Ainslie, another member of the museum team had arrived earlier in the month.A busy summer season lies ahead for the team at King Edward Point and the Museum staff that have around 73 visits from cruise ships this summer.

Work at KEP continued as usual, with a big push to get the base ready for a complete new team of staff to take over from us next month.

South Georgia is far from being an inaccessible isolated place — it is an effort to get here, as by sea is the only way in. The south Atlantic is not renowned for its calm seas but the number of people visiting the Island increases every year. People spend huge amounts of money for the chance to see the extreme wildlife and scenery, which is second to none. It has been a fantastic experience to spend 12 months in this unique environment.

Bob Pratt (Mechanical services technician)