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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

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!

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