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

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