Friday 31 December 2010

12 days of Christmas, South Georgia style!

Christmas is a special time for families, a time for fun, laughter, and good times. Being thousands of miles from shops removes the ludicrous commercialisation of Christmas, and focuses you on friends, family, and having a great time. Even the most pessimistic bah humbug can’t help but start to enjoy Christmas in a place like South Georgia!

The cruise ship Hanseatic decided to put on a Christmas service on the evening of Christmas eve, and we were invited along to participate. We even put on a sing song of the 12 days of Christmas, with a South Georgia twist which included items such as, 1 Penguin, 2 friendly furries, 3,4,5 Carse House (Gov officers house) Gins, 6, 7, 8 FIDs a wintering, 9, 10, 11, 12.

The church was lit by candles, and was a very pretty sight.

DSC_7211Grytviken church by candlelight

In traditional American style (our senior boating officer is half american) we had a ginger bread house to decorate! We used icing to stick on tons of different sweets, then on Christmas day we got to smash it and eat all the bits! It was good fun, tasty, and I think we all overdosed on sugar!

DSC_7257Ginger bread house

On Christmas morning our BC wasn’t feeling too well, in fact he was wrecked, and went straight back to bed. This did cause a slight moment of panic as he was going to be cooking. Ashley and I took up the reins though, and between us we whipped up a veritable feast, with plenty of leftovers too! I mastered yorkshire puddings, and made a sizable mountain of them. The evening was brilliant, everyone had a great time, and were suitably full at the end of the feast.

Gathered for Christmas dinner

Wednesday 22 December 2010

With no Holly what can we deck the halls with?


Decorating Grytviken Church


At the weekend we decorated Grytviken Church ready for the Christmas services that some of the cruise ships hold there over the festive period. The staff from the museum made mulled wine and lots of tasty snacks for us and we made the place look great.

See if you can spot: the ‘Weaner’ (juvenile Elephant Seal), King Penguin, and the decorations that get replaced. Incidentally I’m the one up the red ladder for most of the time. Note to self: Working at height should be followed by, and not preceded by Mulled wine!!

Merry Christmas from all of us at KEP :-)

Thursday 16 December 2010

Hodges, the fast and the slow

Mount Hodges sits behind Grytviken, and rather dominates the skyline from KEP.  Standing at 605m tall it may not seem that high, but the steepness and exposure make up for extreme height. Most of the way up is over scree, through steep gullies, and over the occasional patch of snow.

Most people choose a nice afternoon or mornings walk up Mt. Hodges, but not the outgoing sparky – Richy. After coming to South Georgia 2 years ago Richy started running, and discovered he had quite a talent for it. In the SG expedition book is written an account of a speed ascent of Mt. Hodges, starting and finishing at the museum back door, with a record time set at just over 49mins. The Hodges Challenge as it has now become known was just too tempting, and before leaving the island he was determined to give it a go.

DSC_0127 Richy after the run

After posting people at key points along the route for safety, the record attempt was on. Richy set off at a good pace, heading up the side of Mt Hodges, springing up through the scree. After just 33mins the radio call came through to say he’d reached the summit. Then came the downhill, we’re not really sure how he manages to get down a hill so fast, but after only 13mins descent Richy came running back to the museum. A new record time of 46mins 15sec was the result, an incredible achievement, hopefully to be recognised by Guinness World Records in the near future.

My trip up Hodges, if you haven’t guessed already was quite a bit slower, more of a steady siege than a high octane surprise attack!

DSC_6219_1 Lyndsey, Tommy and Matt above Grytviken

Setting off Saturday mid-morning, the first part of our walk was up to the summit of Orca, a peak on the side of Hodges, and overlooking Grytviken, and ideally situated for a rest and a bite to eat! After enjoying the views for a good while we continued up the steep scree to the summit of Mt. Hodges.

Hodges-pano-2-bw-sm Looking down the mountainous spine of South Georgia

From the snow capped summit the view was stunning. It was pretty breezy, and disturbed snow blew around whenever we moved. There was enough time to take a load of photos though, and with the tripod buried in the snow we could all get in the shot.

DSC_6235_bw_smTommy, me, Lyndsey and Matt on the summit

Getting back down was almost as hard as the ascent, negotiating some steep gullies and loose scree. Making our own way down the side of the mountain into Bore valley rather than following the standard routes was good fun and exercised our route finding skills a bit. We even found a nice snow slope to play around on and slide down.

DSC_6286_1 Matt and Tommy!

Orca and Hodges make up part of another South Georgia Challenge: “The 7 Peaks”. These are the peaks of: Duse, Orca, Hodges, Petrel 1 & 2, Narvval and Brown mountains. And the challenge is to climb them all in one day. While we were on our jolly up Hodges we had a great vantage point to see a number of the ‘old crowd’, (who would be departing 2 days later), make use of the great weather and successfully completed the 7 peaks. That’s is a hill day I am really looking forward to doing, stunning peaks, some exciting snow runs, and some great views (fingers crossed)!

Tuesday 14 December 2010

New arrivals

December is a busy month, while the UK gets hit by ‘the big freeze’ we are heading towards the middle of summer, and onwards with the breeding season. The beaches are bristling with with Fur Seals, Gentoo penguins have their chicks, Light mantled sooty Albatrosses are on their nests and the Terns are eagerly defensive towards anything that moves.

DSC_6056 Skuas fight over afterbirth

Fur Seal numbers are looking excellent this year, a very positive sign after the poor season last year due to a shortage of Krill. Peak pupping was around about the 7th of December, and there are lots of them crawling around the beaches and in the tussac. Getting about the beaches and tussac can be quite tricky with so many seals around, so care has to be taken at all time to avoid accidentally bumping into a rather grumpy set of teeth! Whilst the pups are very cute, they are born angry! If you pass close by one you are met with a feisty terrier like growling and bearing of teeth! Fortunately though they aren’t all that quick at moving yet (unlike the adults that are damn fast) so you have plenty of time to move on by.

Tortula-pano Tortula, one of the study beaches

Part of my job at the moment is to keep a count of the number of Fur Seals. This is done by counting all the males, females, pups and juveniles in fixed study plots on the beaches marked out with small patches of red paint on prominent rocks. Using these figures you can compare counts between years, and estimate when the most pups are born. This date for peak pupping is used to decide when to carry out the annual pup weighing.

DSC_6122A rare and particularly cute blonde pup

DSC_6130Hi winds are common, creating some nice cloud formations

DSC_6174Light mantled Sooty Albatross

As well as being the zoologist I (along with everyone else on base) am also crew for boating operations, and get trained to be cox too. We have two very nice jet boat harbour launches, two RIB’s, and a tiny inflatable called dotty. One of the government officer needed to be taken around to Stromness to meet up with a cruise ship for an inspection, and I got to take the helm for my first trip outside Cumberland Bay, and into our extended boating limit. With a cruise ship alongside the jetty some tight manoeuvring was required, before we could head off out on our way. There was a nice bit of chop and swell around, which made progress fun, but we were soon at Stromness, ready for the passenger transfer. The cruise ship was a little bit late, but a good blast back along the coast surfing the swell got us back just before sunset.

P1000152Stromness whaling station

On the way back from Maiviken after some Seal work Ashley, Rob and I took a bit of a detour into an area of lakes know as the ‘Lake District’. It was very pretty and there were some nice views back down the the bay and over the other lakes.

Maiviken pano 1
Looking down towards Maiviken from the ‘Lake District’

Having set off a few weeks previously a team of Norwegian Kayakers made it back to KEP having circumnavigated the whole of South Georgia. This was quite an incredible journey, and they did very well to complete the challenge in very good time. One casualty of the trip was one of the Kayaks which got rather too much attention from an Elephant Seal! The team managed to make a good repair though using all their spare fiberglass and epoxy, and completed the challenge. We used the celebration as a good excuse for learning how to use flares with the old out of date stock.

Welcoming back a team of Kayakers who circumnavigated South Georgia

The repaired kayak

With life on base tending to revolve around our work a number of social events are regularly held. One of these is the Saturday night formal dinner. Three courses, smartly dressed, or following themes where everyone gets together. Tommy and Matt-mech organised a British Pub themed evening with great pub grub, fancy dress, bar games, and a pub quiz! It was a great evening, although I did get distracted briefly by some nice light and clouds, which I hope you’ll agree was worth while:

DSC_6211 copy

Sunday 28 November 2010

Catch up - part 2

So here are a few more photos, so that I am almost up to date!! It's really hard work trying to find the time to keep my blog updated, and even to just e-mail home! I've been busy writing my Christmas cards too, the last postal ship leaves at the weekend, so they have to be done by then. The ship will be back in mid December to bring stuff in for Christmas too :-)

The old Predator Ecologist did the weekend trip to Maiviken on his own (we are taking it in turns at weekends), so I made use of the free time to climb a couple of mountains instead. Great fun, the bonus of doing long walks every other day is that I'm already pretty fit.

View from Orca. Bore Valley up to the left is my walk to work, Grytviken is in the middle, and Gull Lake is on the right. 

Our senior boating officer Ashley was keen to recreate Frank Hurleys photo at the top of Mt Duse, so I took up my camera and tripod. We had a postcard of the original photo with us so that we could get the right pinacle to sit on, and get everything lined up. I'll have to put the original in for comparison at some point. It was a bit of a precarious place for Ashley and Rob to perch, but it was worth it. The views were stunning too, and it was such a still day we were able to sit around and really soak it in and enjoy the views.
Rob and Ashley recreating the Frank Hurley photograph at the top of Mt Duse looking down to Grytviken

A 360 degree photo from the top of Mt Duse, KEP is centre image

A beautiful evening of star trails, with the mountains lit up by moonlight
Having done a few photos of star trails I wanted to incorporate some of the local wildlife. Elephant seals are a bit dull and slug like at night, and it's not such a great idea to get close to Fur Seals, so King Penguins were the obvious choice. They have good 'Ahhh' factor too! I'm not sure which of the two I like best, but I'm pretty pleased with them both.

More star trails, with penguins that moved around a lot

Playing with more star trails and the flash (1 frame for penguins, and about 1hr of frames for the trails)

King on the beach outside the kitchen

Sunday 14 November 2010

Time for a catch up - part 1!

An interesting King Penguin appeared at the base. I think it's partially leucistic, and it caused quite a bit of interest. It had extra yellow on the head, lots of white feathers on it's back, and pink feet with black spots.

Extra yellow on the head

Spotty feet!

Speckled back
Everyone on base takes it in turn with the early and late shifts. Earlies start at 6am and require you to make the days bread, unload the dishwasher, make up the powdered milk, and then go around base checking that all is as it should be. Below is the result of my bread making, pretty pleased!

My loaves of bread

One of the other tasks of being on earlies is to cook the evening meal. With everyone on base it's quite a big task. Fortunately for me a few people had gone out onto a cruise ship for the evening, easing my task somewhat. I decided to go for good old fish and chips, making a nice beer batter for the pollock, Jon, who I'm on earlies and lates with created a nice polenta batter, for those that couldn't have the normal stuff. It all went down very well, and everyone had clean plates.

Looking South from KEP

After my day on earlies comes a night of lates. This means staying up late, making sure everyone gets to bed safely, emptying the bins, switching on the dishwasher, and doing the rounds of all the buildings to make sure windows are closed and nothing is leaking etc. Having been invited onto the expedition ship Polar Star for the evening Jon and I split the building checks and did everything in good time. It was a stunning clear night, so I stayed up and took some star trail photos across the bay. It really was a stunning night, and I'm quite pleased with the results. The night sky is simply incredible when you are away from light pollution.

The milky way

Saturday 6 November 2010

Heading South

I'm now down on South Georgia, and what a trip to get here! Fly to the Falklands via Ascension, then several days on the South Georgia Fisheries Patrol ship Pharos. And since I arrived I havn't stopped. Induction, work, relief, more work.... so appologies for not being in touch!

Wandering Albatross
Several days of sailing gave plenty of opportunity for sea watching and taking photos of the birds. Plenty of action was to be had from the back of the ship, Giant Petrels, Black-browed, Wandering, Royal, Grey headed and Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses, Wilson's Petrels, Black-bellied Storm Petrels, Prions, Shearwaters, Diving Petrels, and one morning some Snow Petrels appeared too which was a real treat.

Snow Petrel
Meals on board were brilliant, a cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner. With little to do we killed time sea watching, playing scrabble, and taking photos. The weather was really pleasant, even s the ship rolled around quite a bit.

South Georgia appeared a day ahead of schedule due to the fine weather, the mountains are incredible, it's almost like the himalayas have been half drowned. Watching the officers taking bearings and comparing them on the chart I noticed Cape Wilson, and thought it was an appropriate point for a photo!

Infront of Cape Wilson
KEP from the Pharos
Approaching KEP we were welcomed by the base staff all in fancy dress and doing mexican waves! It felt slightly surreal to be here finally, but incredibly exciting.

The view from the base
The view from the base is pretty spectacular, the above photo is the view from my bedroom, living room, dining room, kitchen, lab and office, what more could you ask for! The weather for the first week has been amazing, clear blue skies and light winds made the first week very pleasant. There wasn't much time to settle in though. Work started in ernest straight away. Every other day I have to walk over to Maiviken, check the beaches for seal pups and females, and then walk home, a round trip of about 15km. The terrain is not the easiest either, scree, snow, rocks, and some boggy section.

Maiviken Sealers Cave
The old sealers cave at Maiviken is an interesting sight to see, the entrance of the cave is boarded up and has a door, inside is a wooden platform for sleeping on.

JCR coming in for relief
Just to make life easy, on my day off between Maiviken trips the JCR came in to re-supply the base. Because of the excellent weather it did the Bird Island re-supply first, then came to us. Everyone on base had their jobs, packing boxes into the stores, driving the forklift etc. I was working on the jetty, unhitching stuff from the crane, loading boxes and crates into the trailer, and finally loading up stuff to go back to the UK or Falklands for recycling. It was lots of hard work, but great to see all our food and gear coming in. We were so efficient that the JCR left again the same day. The following day was spent sorting out all the drinks in the bond, and then heading over to Maiviken on the usual seal beach rounds. I certainly was worn out and aching!

Looking back from Dead Mans Pass on my walk to work
The walk to Maiviken is pretty incredible in good weather. Up behind Grytviken, following the valley up, past the water supply dam, and up to Deadmans Pass. From here you get a stunning view, and it's a nice place for a rest too. The main downside of the walk is that once a week I have to study 10 Fur Seal poo's. This basically means sticking them through a sieve and collecting the krill hard parts for measuring, and looking for otoliths (fish ear bones which can be used to identify fish species).

Overlooking Penguin River
It hasn't all been work since I arrived. I have now had 2 days off! The first I went with some of the others to Penguin river. It was a lovely walk along the beach, and yes there were Penguins in the river, King Penguins in fact. On the walk back we visited the artillery gun and shed, and the crashed helicopeter too.

Todays day off has been brilliant. I was asked if I wanted to go out on the Harbour Launch, as the new boating officers would be taking them out to get familiarised with the local area. When I have some time I'll put up some photos from the trip!

Tuesday 19 October 2010

BBC Radio Wales Interview


Had a call yesterday from BBC Radio Wales, they were interested in having me on the Jamie and Louise show to talk about going to work in the Antarctic, and following in the footsteps of my Great great Uncle.

Got the call this morning, and answered their questions, it went quite well, and I’ve copied it off the BBC site so that I could put a copy on here.

I hope it works OK, because I’ve also written it in Windows Live Writer as a bit of an experiment!

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Can we come and visit?

Having mentioned a few times about my new job I thought it was about time that I told you a little bit about it!

I'm going to spend two and a half years working for the British Antarctic Survey as a Zoological Field Assistant, a higher predator ecologist more specifically! Basically I'll be looking at the productivity of Fur Seals and Gentoo Penguins, pup/chick growth rates, and also their diet. To do the latter I get the lovely task of looking at lots of poo!

This wonderful job will take me away to the island of South Georgia, which lies in the South Atlantic Ocean. The island is a British overseas territory and is governed by the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Government. At around 54°S it doesn't sound all that extreme (similar South as Morecambe is North), but the reality is that the cold ocean and winds circling Antarctica make for a much colder and harsher environment than here in the UK. How many icebergs and glaciers do you get in Morecambe Bay?!

To get there is a bit of a mission. First you have to get to the Falklands, either via Chile, or with the RAF, we are using the latter. Current plans are to leave the UK at 0600 on the 22nd Oct, arriving in the Falklands later the same day at around 1945, having had a mid way re-fuel in Ascension where we all wait in the baking heat in what's affectionately called 'The Cage'! From the Falklands it's a 3 or 4 day sail, unless we have to chase after illegal fishing boats, then it could take a while longer!

South Georgia covered in snow, creating a wake in the cloud
By Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC [public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Bird Island, the other BAS base in South Georgia is at the North Western tip, while King Edward Point is mid way along the North Eastern coast in Cumberland East bay. There is lots of information about the base on the BAS website BAS information about King Edward Point

Home sweet home

FAQ section:

South Georgia, isn't that in America? Urm, no it's in the South Atlantic!

Two and a half years, are you mad? Yes probably, although I would say everyone else is mad for not wanting to do it!

Are you going to be living in tents? Fortunately not, we have a lovely scientific base to live on, although we will stay in tents if we are away from the base.

Will you have internet? Yes, it'll be a satellite connection, so not very fast, but I'll be able to keep my blog going and stay in touch.

Do you get to come home for a holiday? No, although I will get 'holidays' down there, we can head off for a few days to different places on the island and stay at small huts in tents (for my dad: we camp IN tents OUTSIDE huts that are in random places around the island).

Can we come and visit? Technically yes, get on a cruise ship and you'll probably get to visit, or find the money and apply to the GSGSSI to come down to do a specific project. For a weekend away, urm, no!

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Leach's Petrel ringing

I did promise to put up some photos and some information about the Storm and Leach's Petrel ringing, so here it is! I've been a bit slow about it as I have just been on training to start work for the British Antarctic Survey, at King Edward Point, South Georgia. I'll have to put all about that up next now won't I!!

There is something great about going out to try and catch Storm and Leach's Petrels. Heading out in the late evening to a remote headland, setting up the nets, and setting the tape lure playing the eerie calls out over the sea to entice in these almost unbelievably small ocean wanderers.

Measuring the wing length

It didn't take too long for the Stormies to start appearing. They have an almost moth or bat like flight, flying around investigating the noise from the tape lures before flying into the net. Carefully and quickly they were removed from the net, carefully placed in fabric bird-bags, and then taken to the ringing station for processing. After some time, our first Leach's appeared! Success, and a great deal of excitement too, especially for those of us who hadn't seen them before.

Handsome chap

At the ringing station Storm Petrels were ringed and released, and anything interesting was noted. Leach's Petrels were ringed, weighed, measured, and inspected for brood patches and moult. The size difference compared to a Storm Petrel was clearly notable, and we took a few photos to illustrate this, and also to record some interesting moult patterns.

On occasions it was possible to see the Petrels against the sky as the flew around and into the nets. Leach's Petrels were especially notable due to their bigger size, and they were also heard calling on a number of occasions, an amazing sound indeed!

Comparing the size difference of Leach's Petrel (left) and Storm Petrel (right)

I was lucky enough to help out with the ringing over a number of nights, and finished in the early morning as it began to get light at around 3:30am. They were long nights, but a brilliant experience and well worth the effort.

Leach's posing before dissapearing into the night

Cheers Will and Rory for a great time :-)

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Yikes it's a Sykes' Warbler

Just thought I'd put in a quick post about the Sykes' Warbler found in Burrafirth by Rory and Will. If anyone is interested in photos for publishing then get in touch, these are much reduced as I am on dialup, high res versions are available, contact me on:   info "at"

Thanks lads for finding a stunner.

Storm and Leachs' Petrel ringing report to follow shortly :-)