King Edward Point Diary – October 2009

31 October, 2009 King Edward Point

October on South Georgia is the most amazing month. From having seen the first elephant seals arrive in September and the first pups born around the vernal equinox, the massive arrival of seals over October is astounding. Just at KEP we have around 180 females in 3 distinct harems and just about every female has pupped successfully. The pups are flourishing despite, or because of, their rough introduction to the world amidst a giant petrel placenta and afterbirth feeding frenzy and being squashed by rampaging 3 ton bulls. It is incredible that they are only suckled for 3 weeks, in which time the mothers shrink in direct proportion to the growth of the pups (which is phenomenal) as they guzzle the rich milk. Born with plenty of room to expand, the pups are almost bursting at about three times their original size in those few weeks.

While we thought we had a lot of seals here, five of us managed to get to St Andrew’s on snow-shoes.

Coming over the crest into Hound Bay, the sight of the beach entirely covered in elephant seals was staggering. We had been there in the boats a month earlier and there were only a few seals. St Andrew’s was the same, with almost all the 2 mile beach writhing with seals pupping, sleeping, snorting, fighting, suckling and growling.

Combined with the half million odd penguins St Andrew’s in October must be one of the most spectacular sights in the natural world. A BBC film crew of two were spending three weeks there over October filming the elephant seals for a new programme about life in the polar regions.

The elegant light-mantled sooty albatross also returned this month and can be seen gracefully soaring back and forth around the sea cliffs and calling for mates from precarious ledges before taking off on synchronised courtship flights. The handsome king penguins are also turning up for moulting around the base and white-chinned petrels are heard in the evenings calling from their burrows in the tussock above the cliffs.

Early in the month we welcomed back Elsa Davidson, the museum curator and Steve Massam, taxidermist and model maker from the Falkland Islands. We had a visit from our first cruise ship of the year, the ‘Ushuaia’ with Tim and Pauline Carr aboard and our sparks’ uncle and aunt. We were invited aboard for dinner and it gave us base staff a chance to remember how to function in society and talk to real, live people!

HMS Clyde paid us another visit and her crew were very gracious in allowing us to win the football match, again, on the Grytviken pitch. No burnett burrs to contend with this time but snow drifts instead. That evening some of us went aboard for a ward-room dinner while others of her crew came and joined us in the KEP bar. The following day we were invited to go aboard on a sight seeing tour around to Fortuna Bay. Crew were put ashore at Fortuna and had a grand day walking over to Stromness, following the last section of the route taken by Shackleton, Worsley and Crean.

Our supply ship and fisheries patrol vessel ‘SG Pharos’ took our predator biologist Jon and two others up to Prion Island for the annual wandering albatross fledgling census. The good news is that all the chicks counted earlier in the year had survived the winter and made it through to fledging. Luke, our fisheries scientist also went on the trip to carry out his regular plankton trawls.

We have had a few yachts visiting recently. One with some mountaineers who made an attempt on Mt Nordenskjold but were foiled by bad weather, a marine artist, a former employee of Salvorsen’s at Leith in the 50’s, some ex-BAS staff and photographers. The mountaineers and ex-whaler gave us some very entertaining and interesting slideshows at KEP.

At the end of the month our annual supply ship the ‘RRS James Clark Ross’ arrived bearing our new base commander Ali, doctor Susan and mechanic Matt, our man in Cambridge Les, BAS director Nick Owens and a couple of technicians to look at the base IT, and boilers. The ship also had aboard the summer crew for the Signey base and new crew for Bird Island. We had a hectic day of unloading a mountain of stores for all departments, huge amounts of food, a new JCB and all sorts of other general cargo. This was followed by a cracking BBQ, organised by the museum staff, down by the garage. It was great to see some people we knew from other bases and previous visits to KEP and to meet all sorts of interesting new people doing various things for BAS.

Four of us were given the opportunity to go aboard up to Bird Island to help with their relief. It was a real treat to get up there. Two days were spent doing cargo work, interrupted by a day at anchor in Elsehul due to some unexpected breakdowns. We got a chance to walk around the island a bit and visit some of the wonderful bird colonies including macaroni penguins, grey-headed albatross and black-browed albatross as well as seeing plenty of wandering albatross, sooty albatross, South Georgia pipits, white-chinned petrels, gentoo penguins, skuas, giant petrels, kelp gulls and pintail ducks (hence the name Bird Island!) We picked up those departing from Bird island and returned to KEP via a stunning early morning cruise into Leith and Stronmess whaling stations.