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