About Me

My photo
Bird Island, South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands
I work as a Zoological Field Assistant, and am the 2009 Winter Base Commander, at Bird Island Research Station, one of the British Antarctic Survey's five research bases in Antarctica. The main remit of my job is seal fieldwork as part of BAS' Long Term Monitoring and Survey programme. Science has been carried out on Bird Island since 1958. I work with Antarctic fur seals and leopard seals, as well as assisting with the seabird fieldwork programme. Contact me on: ewanedwards at gmail dot com

Thursday, 13 December 2007

13.12.2007 - In the middle of the seal assistants busiest period...

Wandering albatross adult (with giant petrel behind) in North Valley

Skua on nest

Me at the top of Bandersnatch, with a snowy La Roche behind

Tussac grass meadows, and the white spots are adult wandering albatrosses, returning to breed

St Andrews Day, Bird Island style

The imposing North Cliffs of Bird Island

The Special Study Beach

The view to the southwest from the top of Bandersnatch...

...and the view to the northeast, with South Georgia in the background

The beach begins to fill with seals

It is now over a month since I arrived, but the time has flown by. Looking back, however, life on Bird Island has been so busy, and so much has happened in the five weeks since stepping off the JCR and first setting foot on the jetty. The beach in front of the base, which only a month ago had a scattering of young male fur seals staking out their territories for the coming breeding season, is now an ocean of seals, a constantly changing carpet of animals ranging from the smallest pups only hours old, to the large males with their extensive harems of ladies. For some of these males, this will be their last breeding season. Already, some of the older ones have held their last harem, such is the stress of defending territory for weeks on end, and they die in the stream that runs down the middle of the beach, which, as is not counted as territory, is relatively peaceful and free from attack from the other defensive males. The giant petrels and skuas do not allow much of a chance to die peacefully, and often start attacking the most easily accessible orifice as soon as they sense weakness in the animals. It is a sad demise for these beautiful animals, which arrive in early November in such fine condition, but become noticeably thin and worn out, and often severely wounded after weeks of not feeding, indeed barely moving, except to court females and aggressively defend their territories.

On the other hand, their successors are being born in their droves! The beach has filled, from the shoreline backwards, with female seals, and after a day or so, they give birth to small (usually) black pups. The little ones are feisty almost from the moment they are born, very quickly assuming the knowledge required to use their teeth as a weapon in self-defence, and a threatening but unconvincing growl! The peak pupping date usually falls between December 5th and 15th so this period is probably the busiest time of the year for the seal assistants. The morning session at SSB, beginning at 09:00 lasts four or five hours currently, and then we return again at 17:00 for two or three more hours. This leaves little time for recreation, what with other science work and base duties. However things will calm down early in the New Year, and Donald and I may even be allowed a lie-in!

The noise outside the base at present is comparable to the sound of the main campsite at T in the Park. If you are unfamiliar with this, imagine the sound of 50,000 Scottish nutters, on the back of a weekend of rock ‘n’ roll music and a few pints too many of lager, complete with whistles, screams and squeals, in a squelchy muddy field. It’s not dissimilar to this both in volume and substance.

Unfortunately my birthday falls in this intensely busy period. This time last year, on my 22nd birthday I remember being in St Andrews, celebrating with friends but at the same time puzzling as to what the future held. My 23rd birthday could not have been more different. There was no real change to the daily routine of late, with an early start and SSB both in the morning and evening, but the folk on base made a great effort to celebrate as much as was possible under the circumstances. I was given a framed photograph of a fur seal, signed by all on base, a knitted fur seal (bit of a theme here!) and a wonderful cake, and we all had a few drinks. But the big party will have to wait until Don and I don’t have to be on the beach for nine o’clock every morning! I was very fortunate to be able to share my birthday celebrations with over thirty new seal pups on SSB!

The weather has remained extremely changeable, and when it rains in the morning we often have a hint of sun in the evening, sometimes the skies clear and we are blessed with beautiful sunsets... although more often than not, the next day starts as manky and grey as the previous!

More updates will follow in due course, but with the hectic schedule and long days at the moment it is proving rather challenging to update as often as I would like! In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the Gordonstoun Association magazine for an article about my job, and listen to BBC Radio Five Live at 0830hrs on Christmas Day for a live telephone interview about people celebrating Christmas in remote places!

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

20.11.2007 - Antarctic Fur Seals

Male and little pup

The best toilet in the world!

A wounded king penguin

Fur seals on Freshwater Beach, outside the Bird Island hut

Gentoo with a nasty injury

Fur seal makes a nest on top of the oil drums

Gentoo penguins breeding outside the kitchen door

Male fur seal on the walkway to the jetty

Giant petrels demolish a dead female fur seal

Male fur seals fighting for territory on the beach

The first pup arrived on the seal study beach sometime this morning before 09:00. When Don and I arrived at the beach, the pup was still damp, although had been with its mother long enough to be cleaned up and bond a bit. From now until the first week of January, we will be busy at SSB twice a day, at 09:00 and at 17:00, with barely time for lunch inbetween! The peak date of births is around December 8th-10th and by Christmas day the majority of the puppies will have arrived, with only a few late ones still to come. By then the aggressive males will have started to calm down: those that make it through the intense breeding season will be returning to the sea, in some cases after a month fighting for territory on the beach - those that don't make it will be cleaned up by the scavenging birds before long.

A bit about the fur seals that I work with: the Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) is a large species of 'eared seal'- different from the 'true seals' such as common seals and grey seals resident in the UK - of which 95% of the world population breeds on South Georgia, believed to be the densest population of marine mammals anywhere in the world. It is thought that there are between 2 and 4 million Antarctic fur seals worldwide. From near extinction due to exploitation by humans in the early 20th Century, they are now protected under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals and have recovered to become one of the most numerous seal species. The aggressive males weigh up to 200kg, but the females are much smaller, around 40kg. The pups are only around 4kg when they are born. Because of their aggressive lifestyle, males live until they're around 15 years old, whereas females can live until 25. They feed mostly on krill, fish and cephalopod molluscs (such as squid).

On Bird Island there is such a dense breeding population that the younger, less dominant animals are forced up the hills from the beaches into the tussock grass, where they turn the tussock meadows into a muddy bog. There has been some call for a cull of the animals, because they are in fact colonising so high up the hills that they are encroaching on the nesting sites of some of the albatrosses and damaging the vegetation.

My work is contributing to a data set that stretches back many years, looking at population trends, what the animals are eating, where they go to forage and how long they spend there. This summer season, I am learning the ropes from Donald, so we are working together.

Moving around the island at this time of year is a bit like a giant game of chess: you have to strategically plan your move through the tussock and between fur seals. But you also have to think ahead, because, for example, if you dash swiftly between two growling males, you have to be sure you're running into a safe area, otherwise you could be trapped on all sides by the gnashing of teeth - check mate!

Away from the work side of things - we had a barbecue last Friday, in the company of around thirty skuas, desperate to get their hands on a piece of meat. Yesterday we serviced one of the John Deere diesel generators that supply our electricity on base, again putting into use skills I learned during the pre-deployment training in the UK.

The weather has turned more 'summery' lately: unfortunately that means more rain, although the conditions are so changable, that even if raining in the morning, it may be sunny come the afternoon. Today the wind reverted to the South, so we've had snow flurries interspersed with bright spells. The icey ground has begun to soften after the recent rain, so there are more and more bogs between the tussock grass to fall into.

Monday, 12 November 2007

12.11.2007 - Week One

Part of 'Big Mac' macaroni penguin colony

Fur seal mother and pup, gentoo penguin, giant petrel, skuas and many male fur seals

The first mother and newborn pup...

...not so cute when they grow into this!

A grey-headed albatross

An adult wandering albatross

A soon-to-fledge wandering albatross chick practising take-off

Young wandering albatross

Parent feeds chick

Bird Island is the most amazing place. One week after my arrival and the settling-in process is well underway. In this short time I have managed to get out and see a lot of the island - not exploring in depth though, as I have over two years to do that. Although the seal work has begun, with daily trips to SSB and other jobs to be sorted out before the females and their new pups arrive and the beaches become nearly unpassable, I have managed to get out to assist with both the albatross and penguin fieldwork, allowing me not only to explore the island further, but to get close to more of the amazing wildlife.

Life on base is fun and sociable. There are eight of us currently, one person is the cook each day, and prepares the evening meal and makes bread. Everyone is busy during the day with their various jobs - currently I am shadowing Donald, the outgoing seal man, learning all the tricks of the trade, as next year I will be doing it by myself. The albatross team, Robin and Derren, are also doing their handover, and Fabrice, the penguin researcher, is going about his daily routine alone, as he will be handing over to a replacement next year. Rob the plumber/general technician is constantly busy with the upkeep of the base, and John the Base Commander, also new in the job, has copious administrative tasks to fill his time, but still finds the time to get out and assist the scientists most days. Claire, a visiting scientist from Cambridge, is trying to fit in as much as possible - both her own work, and finding out what the others all do on Bird Island. All the new folk are starting to get to grips with the routine, and our ability to travel through waist-deep tussock grass on steep terrain is improving daily!

The first female fur seal was spotted on November 10th, and her pup, the first one of the year, was born the day after. The wandering albatross chicks, after the best part of a year on the nest, are stretching their wings ready for their first flight, and the penguins, smaller albatrosses/mollymauks and petrels are sitting on eggs, guarding them stubbornly from the skuas.

The weather is still cold by night, and not much warmer during the day. We have had flurries of snow nearly every day, although it usually comes to nothing, with the strong spring sunshine that we have seen from time to time. We have been blessed with some very fine, dry weather, although this, I am told, is atypical of Bird Island: drizzle and mist is more common, especially at this time of year.

Monday, 5 November 2007

05.11.2007 - First Impressions

En route to Bird Island in the cargo tender, I saw the place from an angle that is rarely seen in photographs: from the eastern end, looking up from sea level. Many photos show the base and La Roche (the highest peak at 356m above sea level) as viewed from the top of Tonk (a peak to the west of Jordan Cove), or the view towards the South Georgia mainland from the top of La Roche. This provided a different perspective, and, although in reality 4.8km by 0.8km really isn't that big, you can fit a lot into an island this size.

On arrival at the jetty, the smell of fur seals was immediately noticeable - I suppose if pushed I will admit it is an unpleasant smell, but not unbearable - perhaps as the concentrations of seals on the beach increases the smell will overwhelm, however by then I should be getting used to it!

Male fur seals are beautiful animals, especially at this time of year when they come ashore in excellent condition, well-fed and ready to fight for territory on the beaches. But they are very aggressive, and will attack invaders into their territories, otarine or human! They make an almost pathetic-sounding whimpering noise, but growl when directly threatened, or when seeing off another male seal, and bear their sharp, yellow furry teeth!

There is a small gentoo penguin colony very near to the base, and one large elephant seal is occupying a not insignificant space near the shoreline, although he is lacking the harem of females that a successful 'beachmaster' should have!

The walk to the Special Study Beach (SSB) where I will spend many hours over the next few months learning the ropes from Donald, my predecessor, follows a route through tussock grass littered with fur seals, down a steep, slippery rocky slope onto a large scaffolding gantry. The beach itself is about the size of a tennis court, and although this morning there were only a handful of males staking out territories, come the middle of December it will be packed with around 600 seals: males, females, and their newly born pups. My priority is continuing a long term monitoring project, which has been carried out at SSB for many years, so some seals are well-known to the seal science visitors to Bird Island, returning year after year.

The island is beautiful. Today was windy and overcast, and bitterly cold, but the wildlife is everywhere: albatrosses throng the hills surrounding the base, seals litter the beach, skuas, sheathbills, South Georgia pintails and giant petrels patrol the beach looking for dead, dying, or parts of animals upon which to feed. Out in the bay, an iceberg, probably originating on the Antarctic continent 1000 miles to the South, has grounded and begun to break up, and fragments of brash ice are scattered on the shoreline.

Inside the base is warm, comfortable, with all mod cons that one would expect in a first class scientific research facility, and more! The food stores are now filled with provisions to last the best part of a year (there is some facility to supplement what we have from further ship visits) and new toys, gadgets and scientific equipment sent down from Cambridge are being discovered by the base members! Bird Island was once the 'runt' of the BAS bases, however following a complete rebuild finishing in 2005 it is now extremely comfortable and warm, and as I sit here in the office, it would be hard to know that I am on a tiny island in the Southern Ocean... if it wasn't for the sound of fur seals directly outside the window!

04.11.2007 - Arrival at Bird Island

First view of the island

Me and my new home

The cargo tender and the snowy slopes of Bird Island

Waving goodbye to folks on the JCR

The JCR is left behind, (mainland South Georgia beyond)

En route to Bird Island from the JCR

A small berg breaks up in Jordan Cove

Freshwater Bay and the buildings of the base

The passage from King Edward Point, South Georgia, to Bird Island overnight was relatively uneventful, as we had an early start to resupply the base and bring the wintering Fids/dental patients aboard. I was put to work as 'dental nurse' for Burjor, as he checked out the Bird Island lads as they came aboard. I hope poor Fabrice forgives me, as his introduction to one of the lads he will be wintering with next year was me, armed with a lignocaine-filled needle!

For the last time for some while, I left the ship yesterday at around 1400hrs. The journey to Bird Island on the cargo tender took longer than would be ideal, because of the strong southerly winds, which rendered the southern anchorage (a much shorter distance from the jetty) unworkable. It was sad to depart the ship, after what had been a varied and highly enjoyable cruise. However since being appointed to this job at the end of April, I have been itching to set foot on Bird Island, my home for two winters and three summers. Now I was to have my chance.

On arrival there was no opportunity to check out the accommodation, to find my feet or to explore the island - instead, all hands were involved in the relief of the base, unloading all the cargo that was being delivered, along with new personnel, from the UK.

Box after box of science kit, food, basic living consumables such as toothpaste and loo roll, and beer, were unloaded from the cargo tender, and Fids from the ship were brought in to help out. The last cargo tender returned to the James Clark Ross, leaving behind a couple of visitors to help continue the unpacking, and I enjoyed my first night with new friends on Bird Island.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

2.11.2007 - King Edward Point

Arrival at KEP

Ewan and Burjor in dentistry mode

Scale and polish, ma'am?

At 0800hrs this morning we pulled alongside at a bitterly cold and snowy King Edward Point, on the island of South Georgia. KEP is the newest of the British Antarctic Survey's scientific bases which is primarily involved in fisheries research on behalf of the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Situated in a sheltered cove in Cumberland Bay, King Edward Point and its near neighbour, the abandoned whaling station at Grytviken, often benefits from a pleasant microclimate, which sometimes results in the cove being bathed in calm sunshine whilst the rest of South Georgia is buffeted by strong winds, or lies smothered in low cloud or fog.

Not so today. We awoke to find three inches of snow on the deck, and the inhabitants of KEP had emerged from the warmth of the base to greet us clad in full arctic gear. The plan for the day was to unload the cargo transported on the RRS James Clark Ross from the UK, including food and the beer order, for the following year. Many of the team went to work on this, but my task was to put into use one of the many skills picked up in training that I hoped I would never need to use - I was to assist the dentist on his post-winter checkup of all base personnel!

When visiting the dentist (not an enjoyable experience for many people), the last thing that you want is to be introduced to someone describing themselves as a seal fieldworker, to then find out that this person would be carrying out some of the treatment. The ship's dentist was always on hand to supervise his assistants, but much of the work was carried out by myself and the doctor from KEP, Rachel, who although one of the medical profession had only as much dentistry experience as me!

After seeing to all the patients, it was time get out and enjoy the afternoon. After the persistent snow and wind of the morning, South Georgia had become a beautiful winter paradise. A couple of us took a walk around the cove, sticking from the snow-free beaches as much as possible, but sometimes having to turn inland to avoid large harems of elephant seals, and fur seals staking out territories in the tussock grass. The sun is strong at this time of the year, especially with the depleted ozone in this region, so copious sunscreen was applied. The deep fresh snow made walking arduous, but the weather was glorious and we made the most of the time we had to explore the area.

On our return, once the sun had disappeared behind the mountains and the snow had started to firm up as the temperature dropped, we enjoyed a somewhat surreal barbecue: with both those from the ship and KEP residents together, all dressed in as many layers as one could wear and with the chorus of elephant seals on the beach by the base providing the soundtrack, until it was too cold to remain outside any longer!