Tuesday, November 2, 2010

ON BOARD PLANCIUS: October 28, 2010

TO: debi@shearwaterjourneys.com

FROM: Debi Shearwater Cabin 602

OCTOBER 28, 2010

Howdy, Birders,

Wakeup call at St. Andrews Bay, approximately 30 km southeast of the
entrance to Cumberland Bay. This is the landing we were blown out of,
yesterday, forcing us on to Plan C or D, or E! This is one of the more
difficult landings, usually due to swells because the bay is fully
exposed to the strong winds that plummet from the ice-clad summits of
the southern end of the Allardyce Range. This day dawns anew, however!
The winds and swells have died. Troels announces a five hour landing at
this most incredible site! Indeed, Don and I are nearly the first ones
ashore and the last ones to depart, making full use of our time. As Don
said afterward, if we had never before been to South Georgia, each of us
would have easily shot over 1,000 images at this one site, alone! It is
a pity for those on board who run out of space on their chips. Come
prepared for the time of your life.

On landing, we shed our outer jackets and gloves because it was a balmy
0 degrees C with absolutely no wind at all. The landing beach was
covered with wildlife— elephant seals and king penguins dominated the
scene. This is the site of the largest King Penguin colony on South
Georgia, and possibly in the world. There could easily have been 50,000
"oakum boys" (young) King Penguins, alone! In total, there could easily
have been over half a million King Penguins.

The King Penguin colony at St. Andrews Bay was first described in 1883
during a visit by the 1882-83 German International Polar Year
expedition. 1,100 birds were recorded there in 1925, when it was
believed to be the largest colony on the island. Gerry Clark, a New
Zealand ornithologist and sailor counted 32,000 chicks in the winter of
1985. Seventeen years later there were approximately 150,000 pairs, a
threefold increase. Encounters with King Penguins are unforgettable: the
sound and smell of a hundred thousand birds gathered on the beach and by
the river is surpassed only by the spectacle that these beautifully
plumaged penguins offer the visitor. Beneath the brilliant blue skies of
this still summer day, their characteristic grace, superbly contrasting
slate-gray and white feathers, and golden orange 'ear' patches, are
captivating. Near the meltwater streams, thousands of adults stood on
the sandy beaches littered with the molted feathers, which sometimes
gently blew up in the air like snowfall. It requires more than one year
to raise a chick for this species of penguin. Thus, last year's 'furry'
brown chicks had gathered in noisy creches, especially along the river
banks—ribbons of brown amongst the gray and orange adults. These chicks
receive double the amount of food at this time of year since both
parents are now free to forage. They accumulate large amounts of fat. In
December, they will fledge.
Researchers at the BAS recently counted 4,400 elephant seals at St.
Andrews Bay! Indeed, the beach was completely covered with their massive
bodies. These are the largest living seal species, being slightly larger
than the Northern Elephant Seals. They have an impressive diving
ability, spending 90% of their time submerged and attaining depths of
about 1,800m during dives that may last for up to two hours. For
elephant seals there is a complete separation between feeding at sea and
fasting on land during the two main haul out periods: breeding and
molting. One of the best parts of our voyage, being in October, is that
we are witnessing the breeding season which is not the case for visits
during the later months of Antarctic travel. There are extreme
differences between the sexes of elephant seals. Mature males can attain
weights of 4 to 5 tons, more than ten times the size of females. This,
we can easily observe among the many bodies packed on the beach. We sit
and watch, fascinated by all of their activities— nursing pups,
satellite bulls vying for a chance to mate with the beach master's
harem, alpha bulls defending their harem, and mating with their females.
Meanwhile, skuas and giant petrels feast on the afterbirth, Antarctic
Terns feed along the sea edge, all against a backdrop of stunning,
jagged mountain peaks and tumbling glaciers. Could we ever tire of it?

We returned to our home ship, Plancius for a brunch buffet. This was
interrupted by an announcement of two Humpback Whales ahead of us. It
was wonderful to watch them, in the glassy, smooth seas as our expert
Captain Pruss navigated carefully around them. Great to find whales down
south, already.

After brunch, we made a Zodiac cruise at Cooper Bay. This was the other
landing that we were blown out of, yesterday. It always helps to keep
that flexible attitude when expedition cruising! So, here we were, in
perfect conditions, watching the first arriving Macaroni Penguins of the
breeding season. Although we only saw a few Macaroni Penguins on the
rocks at the shoreline, it was great. They nest high up, on the
tussac-covered slopes. Gentoo Penguins could be seen in larger numbers.
Around 4,000 pairs breed in the Cooper Bay area, according to a count in
2002. Again, Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses were calling overhead,
flying past their nesting cliffs.

We headed over to the Main Bay landing site. Next, a hike through the
tussac lead to a beach covered in Chinstrap Penguins. Over 10,000 pairs
of Chinstraps breed at this spot. In November 2004, an outbreak of avian
cholera was reported at the colony and the beach closed to visitors
until this year. After the uphill hike, we photographed the "chinnies"
on the beach. We made the return hike along a stream bed which was much
easier. On the opposite side of the stream, many Gentoo Penguins were
sitting on eggs at their nests. Finally, time to return to our ship for
showers (most of us being quite muddy), recap and briefing. Just after
the sun had set, Troels announced, "Killer Whales off the bow!" Everyone
flew outside with cameras. Again, Captain Pruss managed some terrific
navigations to get us on the Killer Whales. One group of 4 was
traveling, but others were spread out. Quite a number of seabirds,
especially Cape Petrels were constantly circling around the Killer
Whales. This led us to believe that they had some sort of prey item,
which they could have been dragging underwater with them. Although we
tried very hard to obtain photo-ID shots, it was extremely difficult and
nearly dark. Two animals approached the ship, very closely, riding
alongside. In the end, Troels estimated that 7 animals were present: one
adult male, possibly one subadult male, one tiny calf, one older calf,
and three "female" types. From the few images that were obtained, we
believe these Killer Whales to be the Type A forms. What an ending to a
most amazing day!!

Penguins forever,
Debi Shearwater
On board Plancius; South Georgia Exclusive Voyage

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