Friday 18 July 2014

We now have an official date set for the first transmission of Natural World: Penguin Post Office - 24th July 8pm on BBC2 in the UK. We still don’t have a date for showings in France or USA, or elsewhere in the world, but will let you know when we do. 

So I last blogged when we left the Antarctic. Leaving the magical continent and personable penguins behind to head north was, for me at least, heartbreaking. It was a much less exciting and far more subdued journey northbound across the Drake Passage than our journey south was. The sea was much calmer and we all took turns to go on watches, meeting up with each other only to share or swap shifts and occasionally to eat together. The final sighting of snow-covered land was masked by the presence of icebergs. Even once we had left these behind, there was still the chance that we could encounter more so I was never quite convinced that I’d seen my last. Until we crossed 60 degrees that is. I watched the boat’s electronic chart show us progress north over the otherwise completely invisible line and I suddenly realised that I really was going home. I’d long wished my last Gentoo and Adelie farewell and now looked eagerly for albatross, prions and petrels, of which I saw plenty gliding elegantly through the air, often within metres of the yacht. Bertie was the first to spot land, calling “Land Ahoy” as Cape Horn grew nearer. Soon after that, we found ourselves motoring back up the Beagle Channel and I saw my first real civilisation for over four months. Even before we got this far, the air started to smell different, of trees and grass, and the abundance of greenery felt weird as it came into sight. I was reassured to see snow on the mountains behind and kept a hopeful watch for Magellanic penguins, desperately not wanting the adventure to end. We saw a handful of these birds swimming, which delighted me. 

Crossing 60
We stopped off in Puerto Williams for a shower and a meal in an establishment run by other people, who had not been to the Antarctic. Everything felt a little bit surreal, especially when Andrew emerged beardless and, quite frankly, looking like a completely different man! Doug was sympathetic to my spaced out state of mind - or at least pretended to be - whilst Dave and Bertie suggested a strong rum and coke might help (which it did). It was great to relax and walk about with dogs and ponies on firm even terrain!

Land Ahoy
After a bit of a rest, we motored further up the channel back to Ushuaia. Arriving here felt more bizarre as it is an even bigger town and there were lots of yachts on the dock that Dave had to navigate around to moor up. Once in situ, we caught up with familiar faces - including the lovely Helen from Port Lockroy who was still around catching up on paperwork. The next task was mammoth - pack up all our kit and offload it from Pelagic. (See picture to see just how much there was.) Thankfully, Helen was able to help us and we got all our bags piled up into a van and offloaded into a hotel, where we could repack in a more organised fashion in preparation for the flights home. We had an evening in Ushuaia, catching up with Helen, recovering from spending so much time on a boat and saying goodbye to Bertie and Dave, and were on a plane back north the next day. The flights home went smoothly and all our kit arrived at Heathrow in as many pieces as it set off in.

The kit returns
Ruth finds an edible penguin in Ushuaia
We were pretty much straight back to work of course! The edit suite, alive with the sound and sights of Port Lockroy as the film was being cut, was a dear reminder of the experience, allowing Andrew and I to re-live it through our expert editor, Rick Holbrook. Here is a picture of him hard at work! As you can see, although the screen is full of penguins, the rest of the landscape in Bristol is a far cry from the wilds of life on Pelagic or in the Nissen Hut!

Editor Rick hard at work
Now, it feels almost like a lifetime ago that we were in the Antarctic making the documentary. It certainly feels like a different world - simpler, more free somehow. Since we’ve been back we have completed the film and managed to take a bit of time out too. We were also honoured to join the UKAHT at the House of Commons in June for an event to mark the 70th anniversary of Operation Tabarin, during which the base (now Post Office) at Port Lockroy was built. It was wonderful to catch up with friends made during our time south. 

I feel extremely lucky to have spent so much time in the company of penguins, to have live in such a remarkable part of the world and to have met so many people who have made the journey there themselves - or made it possible for us to journey there. I believe the finished film is a reflection of the key events that took place in the lives of the penguins surrounding the post office during our season. Or at least as much as it can be when condensed into an hour long film. I really hope you enjoy watching it. I will be on twitter during the transmission and immediately afterwards to answer any questions should you have any whilst watching. My twitter handle is @ruthpeacey

Thank you again for reading this blog and for all your support during the season. I will keep you posted as and when we find out about further transmission information in other locations around the world.  

Monday 10 March 2014

Leaving Lockroy

Leaving Lockroy - Monday 10th March

Apologies it has been so long since the last blog. We have been dedicating as much of our time as possible to filming leopard seals and tackling the elements...

Leaving Lockroy part I
The leopard seals that had been frequenting Port Lockroy disappeared again soon after my last blog and the ice packed into the bay, rendering underwater visibility poor. Therefore, we popped south for a few days again, using information gathered during our recce to try and film leopard seals in Port Charcot or Pleneau. We arrived at Port Charcot and the leopard seal was patrolling the area, exactly as we had seen it previously. We stuck around for a couple of days but didn't really see it again and the wind was due to change, which would have made our mooring spot (pretty much where Charcot himself overwintered once upon a time) pretty tough. So, we upped sticks and hopped across to Pleneau. We only saw one leopard seal there - it chased Andrew for quite some time but disappeared just as Doug turned up in dive gear in a second zodiac! The winds really picked up soon after that and we had to sit tight below deck. Filming commitments with the Port Lockroy team back at Base A (Port Lockroy), meant we had to up sticks when the weather came good and head back to our home at Lockroy.

Plucky penguins
Back at Port Lockroy, the chicks were starting to take to the water, finally! Without thought, they chased their parents into the sea - often still fairly down-covered but clearly desperate for a feed. Then they realised they were wet and rushed back out again, shaking themselves off but looking non-the-worse-for-wear. Others, that were perhaps closer to fledging, entered the water with a little more thought, standing waist-deep before putting their heads under to check out their underwater world. Often, this seemed to shock them as they would quickly lift their heads and run back out onto the rocks, before repeating the process several times. Eventually, we saw some take to the waves - tiny patches of down on their wings or neck being the only thing to give away their status as new fledglings.

St David's Day
Thoughts were with my mum as the 1st March came around. No daffodils here but we did have a Welsh flag... It was incredibly windy and blizzardy so we postponed raising it for a day or so when it could actually be seen and we didn't risk losing it! Michael (one half of a maintenance team working for the UKAHT down at Port Lockroy for the next few weeks) is from Wales and proudly raised the flag with me. A few penguins even hung around the base of the flag pole to see what was going on.

A blustery goodbye
It seems all to quickly that the 4th March came around. This was the day that the core Port Lockroy team left the base, closing the shop and post office for winter. We all awoke to another gusty day, with snow driving horizontally across the island. The ship picking them up to take them north to Ushuaia cancelled their morning landing nearby and instead gave them an hour's notice before landing zodiacs to collect them. Andrew, Doug and I quickly pulled our kit together and prepared to film them leaving the island. It was all very hectic and the driving snow made filming very tricky indeed. In fact, just as the zodiac disappeared, I realised they had indadvertedly taken one of our camera bags. There was a bit of a panic as we radioed the ship, identified the bag and arranged for it to be safely delivered back to us - a huge thank you to all involved from Ocean Diamond, especially the zodiac drivers who battled the elements to ensure our kit was safely returned! As a result of all this pandemonium, I was sorry not to say a proper goodbye to the four friends I have shared the last few months with - so here we go: goodbye Helen, Jane, Sarah and Kristy! Thanks for including me as part of your team, for sharing your living space with me and my kit, and for helping to make my experience at Port Lockroy unforgettable. Hope you are all happily relaxing by now and making the most of decent showers!
I remained on base for a while after the team had left and, although I have been on the island alone a few times and Michael and Liesl were in Bransfield House busily working, it felt empty without the Lockroy Ladies.

Blowing in the wind
We were hoping to make an escape soon after the team but were thwarted again by high winds - 40 knots in the bay! As the wind and blizzard continued to prevent us from filming and indeed even getting off of Pelagic, frustration developed within the team. Luckily, we had some friendly neighbour yachties who suggested a game of radio chess! It certainly killed an hour or so (and has become my favourite misuse of the radio this season).

Leaving Lockroy part II
After two days, the wind dropped sufficiently for us to move on and that we did. Michael and Liesl waved us off and I gave a final call to the penguins. It was hard to say goodbye to our characters but I know they will soon be fully fledged and moulted, traveling to and from sea to feed when they need.

My friends, the animals
We made two stop-overs on our way north out of the Peninsula - Waterboat Point and Cuverville Island. It was great to see a little bit more of this stunning cold world before leaving Antarctica. There were more gentoos than at Lockroy and I was able to see how they compared in terms of stages of development (about the same). The highlight for me was when one penguin presented me with a pebble. Seriously. I was stood on a rock and it came over and bowed at me, before dashing off and returning with a stone which it placed at my feet. Delighted as I was to witness / be part of this behaviour, I took it as a sign that I was blending in rather too well and subsequently showered. And, no, I wasn't wearing the hat or the onesie!
The leopard seals were pretty friendly too - we witnessed a hunt about 2 metres from the stern of the dinghy while putting out mooring lines and the seal brought us the dead penguin much like my puppy (well dog now - it's been a while!) brings his favourite toy over to me at home. As we were untying to leave, another leopard seal started chewing on the lines, treating them like a plaything. The last few weeks have really enabled me to see these feared beasts in a totally different light - they gracefully swim through the water, twisting and turning as they move beneath the surface, they are hugely curious and check out anything, they seem to enjoy playing both with food and objects they come across, and they do seem to spend time in pairs sometimes. They are clearly intelligent and inquisitive animals that are a pleasure to watch.

Homeward Bound
We wrapped up our lines and lifted the anchor for the final time in this beautiful continent this morning. It was with mixed feelings that we left behind the penguins, ice and snow and headed out to sea. In fact, as I write this we are passing the last land before Cape Horn. We haven't seen any whales this morning but i am optimistic that we might spot some on our crossing, as well as catching up with albatross, prions and petrels once again. The last few months have felt like a dream and I'm sure that feeling will become only stronger as I enter back into my normal world. I am sorry to leave the penguins and I know I will miss them and the breathtaking landscapes that have made up my backyard recently, but I am excited about catching up with friends and family back home.

Confessions to my hairdresser
Before I left the UK, I promised my hairdresser that I would try not to go outside with wet hair. Unfortunately, I have broken that rule a few times. My hair didn't freeze doing that, although it may have had a few waves and downpours of rain freeze onto it ov er the past few months. I have also mentioned showers a few times and yes I have been fortunate to wash my hair about twice a fortnight. Most of the time this has been with salt water however. I think I need a serious restyle when I get back!

Ending on a good note
The last few weeks have been frustrating and exhausting - the difficulty of trying to film leopard seals and the extreme weather has taken its toll on energy levels and morale at times. It has been tough, but I didn't expect life in the Antarctic to be easy. The kind of weather we have seen recently has made the soul of this place more extreme and rugged. Of course, for all the challenges we have faced, there have been some real moments of joy too...
Doug fixed my binoculars!! :D I am still not quite sure what the problem was and of course I will get them serviced when I return but I have been able to return to at least some level of normality, watching birds and wildlife from various perches - and now the window in my bunk!
The penguins have continued to entertain me This won't come as a surprise I'm sure. Watching them propel themselves through the water, waddle and slide across snow, and jump or fall over rocks has always brought a smile to my face.

The future
Don't worry, this isn't the end of the blog! The adventure still continues as we have to get back across the Drake! I'm not sure how much I will be able to post during the crossing, but you can be sure a post will be available when possible. I also have lots of pictures that I have been unable to post during my time south. I will put up a selection of my favourites when I return home. I will also keep you updated with how we get on in the edit with Penguin Post Office and news on its progress and expected transmissions!

Wednesday 19 February 2014

My Penguins and Other Animals

My Penguins and other Animals - Wednesday 18th February

It feels like the penguin chicks are hitting their teenage years! They are creching now and wandering around in big gangs cockily hissing at passing skuas. Full of curiosity, they are exploring the island, testing new objects - including us - with their beaks. Some show a great deal of interest in the filming process, hanging around at the base of the tripod or our kit; others really couldn't care less and, if they were human, people would say it is because they are used to having a camera in their face from the moment they hatched (ok, if they were human, hopefully one wouldn't use the term "hatched"). It is much harder to keep track of our characters now as they are no longer spending much time at their nest site or with their parents. However, the boat shed chicks seem to favour their nest rock as a place to sprawl out and Jack and Jill still attempt to feed theirs by the flag pole. The others are well and truly into food chases, running away from their offspring whilst they chase hungrily after. Norman the Doorman has been hanging around by the door (where else?!) as usual, providing much entertainment for the visitors to Port Lockroy.

Earlier in the week, we had a fairly decent snow storm for the first time in a while. The snow settled and turned the rocky penguin colony, buildings and surrounding coves a magical white again - a reminder that winter is on its way. Of course it wasn't to last and, all too soon, the snow was replaced with rain (I would moan but appreciate that the UK is going through a hard time with this weather right now so don't feel it terribly appropriate) and everything turned a krill-brown once again. Andrew and I braved the quagmire to film our penguins, caking ourselves and our kit in guano. This made me feel even more at one with these birds as they too are all brown with guano at the moment - very photogenic I must say (cough cough). Although the wet weather has made our chicks look rather different, they aren't suffering too badly despite being still covered in down. Some of the chicks are beginning to gain their adult plumage now, whilst many adults are moulting. The best one I've seen so far looked a bit like a vulture: sleek moulted head with fluffy white crest, a large ruff of feathers leading into what can only be described as a loose cloak with smooth wings poking out the side. He even walked with a bit of a hop!

We have had a lots of carvings taking place in the bay these last few weeks. Their thunderous roar alerts us to their happening and, if we're lucky, we may spot a huge pillar or side of ice crashing into the sea below. This is often immediately followed by a surge of waves against the shores around Port Lockroy. I feel very lucky to be able to witness such events - even more so when I'm on shore as opposed to being woken up by them at 5am on the yacht.

The new brash ice in the bay seems to have encouraged seals to these parts for there are loads of them around now. Groups of crabeaters swim around in gangs while individuals hang out on bigger chunks of ice. We have also been seeing leopard seals and I have been casing the joint in preparation for the arrival of Doug Allan. On Friday, I went out in the zodiac to check out a leopard seal on an ice floe. I sat for about 20 minutes watching it chilling before another started hunting in the brash ice behind it. It was incredible to see it LEAP out of the water (not something I was expecting I have to confess) and then flap about in pursuit of a penguin. As I saw it had one, I rushed to pick up Andrew (who was filming our skua chick on Bill's Island) and returned in time to see it flail the dying Gentoo against the water. We approached cautiously and soon found it was more interested in us than penguins as, once again, Andrew and I found ourselves being chased...

Two days later, large pieces of fallen ice started targeting Pelagic. (I admit that's not possible but it is certainly what it felt like as they all congregated around the boat.) Bertie (yes, Bertie is thankfully back with us - returned to us via Pelagic Australis last Sunday) jumped into the zodiac to nudge it away only to find it was being guarded by a rather large leopard seal. Said leopard seal chased her a number of times, even porpoising in her wake. Eventually she was able to shove the iceberg away from the yacht and we all hopped in the tender to get a better look at the leopard seal. Meanwhile, John (sorry for the misspelling that I am sure I have made there) from Pod Orange had made friends with the beast himself and we laughed as it splashed around him at the back of their yacht.

Leopard seals are very much on our minds at the moment as the legendary Doug Allan has arrived here at Port Lockroy, staying on Pelagic with us to film these infamous animals underwater. We have seen at least four of them today and had some rather curious individuals playing around our zodiac. Doug has tested his kit and so now please all cross your fingers that we get the footage we're after...

Notes to readers:
1. Apologies for a misspelling in the last post - it should have been Wauwermans Islands. Thank you to Alan Carroll for the correction and for all his help and support this season.

2. Thank you to you all for reading the blog. We appreciate the support and all the comments we have received. Particular big shout out to Jane's dad who brought us news that there is a Crocodile (called Chris) residing in Bristol at the moment - news from home is always gratefully received!

3. I often comment that I find penguins funny and I have been asked to share why. Here are my top five reasons. Today. Please note, these are subject to change(!):
i) They fall over. A lot. Designed for sea makes them clumsy on land. Clumsiness in this capacity equals comical, particularly when it involves a face-plant into snow.
ii) The chicks flap their newly-grown wings as if they believe they can fly and then pull them in front of themselves as if they are embarrassed by the realisation they can't.
iii) Individuals run through a colony or creche of chicks, slapping each individual they pass and scattering them as they do so.
iv) Curiosity, especially with regards to the chicks. They will check anything out at this stage - an old rusting windless with a bit of rope becomes a great place to play hide and seek, the rope forming a temporary wig as they pull at it; a tripod becomes an object to stand and admire; water is a novelty that they are not quite sure what to make of; a step becomes a platform on which to play king of the castle. Of course the best bit about them being intrigued by their new world is that they are still sometimes nervous of it. So often they will confidently waddle so far before stopping and standing. Unfortunately they may be followed by other chicks who just walk straight into the back of them. I laugh anyway.
v) The way they poop. I'm sorry. This was never going to be particularly high-brow. Honestly though, I would challenge the Queen not to laugh at this one. The defection is accompanied by a noise that would beat any created for fiction. The timing is always perfect too - jump out of the water, poop; watch the Port Lockroy team sweep guano off the paths, poop on the clean bit; wait for Andrew's camera lens to be within range, poop at it.

4. It feels like everything is breaking. My binoculars have for starters. This is a disaster and almost broke me. It turns out, devastated as I may be, I am tougher than a pair of green bins with a pretty picture of a bird on them (other equally identifiable brands that I am less disappointed with are available, although again very unfortunately not here in the Antarctic). My little point-and-shoot camera has died too. Luckily, I can use my phone and larger camera so it's annoying but not the end of the world. Andrew's tripod snapped. This was actually almost show-stopping. Fortunately a fix was found and the show can and does continue (very gently).

5. Finally, I would urge you all to check out the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) website if you haven't already done so. The Port Lockroy team have their own blog on it, which tells tales of all the work they have to do throughout the season (as well as the odd bit of fun they manage to squeeze in). There is also more information about all of the work the trust carries out here in the Antarctic - they look after / maintain a number of sites on the Peninsula. It is thanks to the UKAHT that there is still an operational Post Office and that we have been able to station ourselves here at Port Lockroy all season and make this documentary, for which we are very grateful.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Skuas, Seals and A Journey South

Friday 7th February - Skuas, Seals and a Journey South

Skua chick hatches
On Sunday our skua chick finally hatched. Of course we didn't actually see the hatching but knew something had changed by the aggression displayed by the adult as Andrew and I made our daily approach to the nest site to check out the situation. The chick looked super cute and was tiny compared to the other chicks we had seen. It could easily have fit in my hand and looked just like a brown ball of fluff with a little black beak and beady eyes. We hurried back to the yacht to get the camera kit and got Andrew into place before I disappeared to ensure the least disturbance. It was a successful strategy as Andrew was able to film the chick as much as it was out from underneath its parent's wings. I think he felt wind blasted by the end of the day but inspired to try and get more the next day!

Moving Pelagic
Again, I helped set Andrew up in position by the skua chick in the morning. This time, I left to help Dave move Pelagic. The yacht had been tucked in behind the boat shed between Goudier and Bills Islands for over a month and our team had decided to head south for a leopard seal recce, so the yacht had to be moved in preparation. While I untied to the lines, Dave expertly helmed the yacht out of its place in what, at times, felt like a small pool out into the back bay behind Bills Island. I then spent an hour or so checking up on all our penguin characters to ensure we weren't going to miss anything. Whilst on Goudier Island, some minke whales appeared just off shore. The Port Lockroy team and I took a few minutes out to enjoy them, sitting down at Chains Landing and watching them arch their way through the water. This time felt all too short though as I soon had to pick up Andrew so we could get an early night in preparation for an early start...

Water off a whale's back
Our team left Lockroy to head south on a little leopard seal recce and headed into the Peltier Channel, which looked beautiful - the mountains formed a perfect reflection in the still water and stunning morning light. We crossed the big stretch of open water beyond it and headed for the Lemaire Channel, our eyes peeled for whales which supposedly frequent this area. Andrew popped below deck to make us a delicious breakfast of pancakes and, of course, this is when we glimpsed a humpback moving through the water ahead of us just off Wauwermayn Islands. Dave slowed the engine, allowing us to tootle about for a bit, which totally paid off... within minutes we were watching at least three individuals and they started breaching! One even did so about 200m from Pelagic; the thud as it hit the water was mind-blowing. We had the pleasure of the whales' company for a while and, when they got bored, moved on - both of us continuing our journeys in the opposite direction to each other. All three of us were on a high as Dave spotted yet more whales in the Lemaire - minkes this time. They didn't want to hang around as much, preferring to weave in amongst the brash ice that lined the channel. Still, What a start to the day!!

Parked in Pleaneau
We arrived at Pleaneau in time for a quick lunch and then moored Pelagic into a good sheltered spot. We caught site of a leopard seal on an ice floe in a filmable place so Andrew and I got to work filming it. I have to say it wasn't the most active animal and didn't look as ferocious as others we have seen. Whilst Andrew filmed, I checked out another leopard seal I'd seen as well as a hoard of crabeaters hauled out on fast ice. I also inspected the penguin colony, looking for the main entrance points the penguins are using to enter and exit the water. We finished the day on a high point (quite literally) overlooking the whole bay area. It was stunning and gave us a good overview of the lay of the land. There was even a stray fur seal hauled out on a rock, which was a great surprise!

Lurking leopard seals
On Wednesday we headed to Port Charcot where we immediately caught sight of a leopard seal. Andrew and I spent a couple of hours cruising around the bay trying to get a feel for how the seal behaved etc. It disappeared for a while but returned and started to pay us a little more attention! When it started directly chasing us, we decided to call it a day! They look like totally different beasts in the water - much more menacing (although I suppose any large predator chasing you would probably come across that way). Pleased with our findings, we headed north again back "home" to Port Lockroy.

It took only about 4 hours to motor north, during which time:
Andrew and Dave made delicious mac and cheese for dinner.
We saw a humpback mother and calf just north of Lemaire.
I baked what can only be described as the worst loaf of bread ever (it looks like a lump of dough with a brown bottom).
Dave drank 7 cups of tea.
Andrew sleepwalked.

Seal of approval
Yesterday, Andrew based himself in front of the Boat Shed as the Port Lockroy team had seen a couple of giant petrels attacking a penguin chick there. Patience unfortunately didn't pay off and he didn't see any such behaviours. While Andrew was occupied looking at newly creching chicks and awaiting murder, I was off in the zodiac looking for leopard seals and attempting to film penguins underwater. I was not particularly successful at either sadly but I did get accosted by three crabeater seals that even spy hopped to get a better look at me. It was pretty awesome to be so close to large wild animals in Antarctic waters and have such a personal encounter. They seemed pretty keen to stick around, playing around the boat for a good 15 minutes.

Murder he filmed
A shocking attack took place by the boat shed this afternoon as a chick was pecked to death by several adult penguins. It almost seemed to be running a gauntlet as it looked for a safe place to stop. This was not to be and, sadly, the chick came to a rather gruesome end. It is desperately sad to witness such deaths but it is also part of the nature of a penguin colony. The worst part for me was watching what I assume to be its sibling cuddling up to its corpse some time later. Heart-wrenching.

In better news, all the chicks on the island are really starting to be more active and independent now. We are watching them toddle about the island exploring further and further from the nest point until now they have called home. They are indescribably cute and, as they get increasingly curious, they are getting more and more keen to check us out too! :D

Friday 31 January 2014

Feeling Hot hot hot

Thursday 30th January - Feeling hot, hot, hot

It is a balmy 9 degrees celcius here at Port Lockroy today. I am currently sat out on the deck of Pelagic, enjoying the bright sunshine and beautiful scenery whilst I wait for our batteries to charge and media offload to complete. It really is a spectacular view - blue skies with wisps of white cloud overlooking towering snowy mountains that line turquoise blue water. The water is so calm, it is almost like a mirror and the penguins seem to be relishing in the opportunity to dive in and out of it as if to cool off, leaping on and off the rocks that surround me. The air is perfectly still and the only sound I can hear are the braying penguins and the occasional crash of breaking ice bergs and tumbling snowy cliffs.

This morning, Andrew and I filmed Jack's family beneath the flag pole. We captured the penguin chicks panting in the heat, fighting for the shade of their parent's shadow with their siblings, and flapping as if no one has explained to them that they can't fly.

Our local skuas continue to do very well - I have seen plenty of penguin chicks being devoured (mostly when we are filming elsewhere on the island!) and even attacks on sheathbills. We are currently keeping a close eye on two skua nests, one of which includes a very fluffy ball of a chick that frustratingly loves to hide behind rocks.

I have been getting to grips with the outboard these last few days and have been taking myself off around the bay to keep up to date with the skuas and also check out any local seals. We haven't seen a leopard seal here for about a month now but there are plenty of crabeaters (that don't eat crabs but instead favour krill) and weddell seals hauled out on ice floes and snow-covered beaches.

Anyway, I am going to sign off now as I have about 15 minutes before I'm going back over to Port Lockroy to film and I really just want to make the most of the sunshine and continue to watch penguins leaping out of the water...

Thursday 23 January 2014

Elinca and Dave return

Thursday 23rd January - Elinca and Dave return

We have had an exciting few days here in the bay of Port Lockroy. Firstly, Skip left to go north on a cruise ship on Sunday and Dave is now skippering Pelagic again. The guys from the yacht Elinca stopped by for a few beers on their way north on Monday night, so we had a fun evening on Pelagic catching up with them. They really are an inspiring group of people, led by Clare and James, and we have had some great evenings with them during their stop-overs here at Port Lockroy - Christmas on Christmas Eve, Burns Night 10 days early (but complete with haggis and an Ode - to a gentoo rather than the haggis), and their final night on Sunday. If you get a chance, you can see what adventures they get up to on their blog as they make their way back to the UK via South Georgia, the Falklands and Brazil:

Spying on skuas
As the penguin chicks are growing and getting more confident about wandering outside their parents' brood pouches, we have seen an increase in skua activity on Goudier Island. Every day, around four skuas can be seen in the air at any one time searching the ground for easy-pickings. They swoop very low and catch the air currents off the rocky cliffs too, particularly on the more blustery days. They have certain watch points too where the position themselves to look over the penguin colonies - the Stevenson Screen and apex of the boat shed roof being the main ones. Needless to say, we have to show more of the skuas than just hunting behaviour (which can be pretty gruesome) so I have been exploring the local rocky outcrops over the past few days looking for nests and youngsters. I now have three nests, which we can use as potential filming locations - the easiest of which is on Bills Island. They are surprisingly tolerant, although there is normally an element of dive-bombing when we first approach. I am monitoring the nests daily now as I don't know when the eggs were laid and would like to see (and give Andrew the opportunity to film) the chicks being fed when they do hatch.

Polar Plunge
Yes, I have finally done a polar plunge!! I jumped off the back of Pelagic the night before last into the bay with Michelle who is staying on the yacht Australis that is currently anchored in Port Lockroy. Having filmed Andrew's girls jump in, I felt I had to do it myself and there was no dilly-dallying on the edge, just a count to three and jump (with a shriek and a huge splash)! The water was cold (well, doh!) and we were literally steaming when we clamboured back out on deck. It was a fantastically beautiful evening, complete with humpbacks (their blows visible out in the Neumayer Channel), beer and a BBQ on Australis.

Monday 13 January 2014

Plans are made to be broken

Sunday 12th January - Plans are made to be broken

Drake Doom
As Skip prepared to take Pelagic back across the Drake to Ushuaia with his and Andrew's families, reports of dire weather came in. The families need to be back in their respective home countries (Graham-Browns in UK and Novaks in South Africa) next week so the potential 5-or-more-day delay to leave the Peninsula was a problem. Skip kept across all the weather reports and eventually made the call to try and get the families onto a larger ship that could cross in any condition (virtually). Luckily, the ship Fram was heading straight back to Ushuaia from Port Lockroy and had rooms available. The families left as planned (sort of) on the 10th and will be back on terra firma tomorrow. We have heard word from Skip's wife Elena that all are doing well and are approaching Cape Horn as I type. Phew.

No Problem Pelagic
This brought about the question of what to do with Pelagic. To ease pressure in the Nissen Hut on Goudier Island (and to save Skip crossing the Drake alone - more than capable of this but still not something one would choose to do unplanned), Pelagic is remaining here at Port Lockroy. I have moved back on board, so now I have my own bunk which I don't have to pack up each morning (luxury!), and Andrew and I have more space to sort and use our kit. We are staying here with Skip for the time being. Dave and Bertie will return to join us and relieve Skip in due course.

Hatching Continues
Right across the island, hatching is still taking place. Andrew and I spent yesterday watching and waiting for a chick to emerge from a 5cm hole in the egg. Watching bits of shell come away and a tiny beak poke through to yawn in its new world was incredible. Of course, we only get privileged glimpses into this behaviour as the parent is all too keen to protect the new hatchling from the elements and dangers that surround it. After much patience, the evening drew on and we had to abandon filming for the day. Of course by this morning, the chick had fully hatched! As we settled to film our new star, a slightly different weather front moved in...

Wet Snow
I have mentioned before my dislike of rain in the Antarctic. I now have another precipitation type to add to this list, which isn't all that dissimilar - wet snow. As it comes out of the sky it gives the appearance of snow but quickly turns to sleet, giving everything a dousing of what is essentially rain. This affects filming as a) the penguins do less, hunkering down to protect eggs and chicks and b) the lens gets covered in water droplets rendering anything that is filmed unusable. Unfortunately, the whole of today has been dismal with continuous wet snow. Still, it has given Andrew and I chance to relocate our logging station to the yacht and catch up with the material we have already got in the can.

Penguin Watching
Before dinner (pasta cooked by Andrew), I took a bit of time to hang out with the penguins on Goudier. Drenched and barely able to see through the driving wet snow (see above), I actually enjoyed bird-watching in weather not unlike that I might be experiencing at home. As one of the penguins I was watching stood up to reveal its healthy chick underneath, I spotted that its second chick had perished. Heartbreakingly, the parent still tended to this chick, tucking it into the brood pouch as best as could be managed. The healthy sibling fed and huddled into its dead brood-mate. Tearfully, I had to return to the yacht. It is distressing to observe such events but unfortunately, it is something I will have to get used to in the coming weeks - particularly if the weather doesn't improve. It sounds harsh but it is often easier to witness these things through the lens of a camera, where you are somewhat separated. We shall of course attempt to film even such tragedies when we come across them. And I will attempt to man up, emotionally separating myself from my beloved Gentoos in order to be able to witness such behaviours for the scientific events they are.