Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Lovely leopard seals

It’s winter. Much of the wildlife that surrounded us during summer has now dispersed. Most of the birds have left, only a handful of penguins remain, and I can walk around the beaches with only sporadic instead of consistent hassle from the few remaining fur seals. One exception to this quietening down trend has been the leopard seals that started arriving in the early months of winter. I’m the lucky man who gets to stalk them.

Maurice showing off the dental work (photo Cian Luck)
Every day in winter, come rain or shine snow, I walk the lep round in search of spotted seals. The route starts near the Special Study Beach (my summer office) and hugs the coast around Freshwater Inlet, Main Bay, and ends at Evermann Cove. Depending on the leps, the round takes me a couple hours to walk. While I do this I try to keep my eyes glued to the sea as some leps can hang around in the same spot for hours (helpful) while others might only show themselves for a few seconds at a time (less helpful). Once I see one it’s my job to take pictures of the lep so that we can compare them to our database and identify which seal it is.  

My daily round on the left, and me playing leopard seal paparazzi on the right (photo Jerrgy Gillham)
The underside of each lep is dotted with a unique pattern of markings so this is quite doable, and some are even recognisable by sight. The tricky part is when a lep cunningly hides these markings by stubbornly keeping their face and belly underwater. I once followed a lep for an hour and a half in the rain and it never showed me more than its back. Thankfully as much as they enjoy this kind of carry-on they also love floating vertically in the water with either their head or tail sticking in the air. This makes my life a lot easier, as the throat is often the easiest way to identify a lep, and many of these leps are sporting some fetching flipper tags.

Maurice showing off his spots (photos Cian Luck)
The underside of each lep is dotted with a unique pattern of markings so this is quite doable, and some are even recognisable by sight. The tricky part is when a lep cunningly hides these markings by stubbornly keeping their face and belly underwater. I once followed a lep for an hour and a half in the rain and it never showed me more than its back. Thankfully as much as they enjoy this kind of carry-on they also love floating vertically in the water with either their head or tail sticking in the air. This makes my life a lot easier, as the throat is often the easiest way to identify a lep, and many of these leps are sporting some fetching flipper tags.

This was as close as Max would allow us (photo Cian Luck)
Leps have a fearsome reputation. And it is fully deserved. They are top marine predators. Around BI they eat lots of fur seals, plenty of penguins, and they attack any bird that tries to steal their food. They strip the meat off their kills by thrashing it violently above water. This is an awesome display of power. They’re also huge. Max is the biggest lep I’ve measured at a bit over 3 metres, but Keeley, who I’m yet to meet on land, has measured in at over a 3.5m. I’m 6’1. If I laid down next to her, twice, we’d be about the same length. 
Young Jim snacking on a fur seal and Maurice telling a Giant Petrel to F off (photos Cian Luck)
But what less people realise about leps, and maybe I’m a bit biased here, is that they’re also lovely. They have genuine personalities and some of them are so chilled out. Maurice is the lep I meet most often and he’s super mellow. If I sit near (not at) the water’s edge he’ll often give me a good look (making eye contact with a lep is amazing) and then go back to doing whatever he was doing. Young Jim used to be known as Jumpy Jim because he got scared by people and ran off whenever they were near, but he’s calmed down a lot this year and simply watches me with a wary eye when I walk past. Max doesn’t like you being within touching distance on land, but he has no problem with you sitting five feet away. And every time I see Keeley she’s doing what she always does; feck all.
Clockwise from top left: Maurice, Young Jim, Keeley, and Max (photos Cian Luck)
So in summary, leps are great. They command respect, they have killer personalities, and they get me out the door each day. Long live seals.
Irrefutable evidence that leopard seals are lovely. His name is Gil (photo Cian Luck)

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Pelagic Australis

Considering where we are, we don’t get many visitors at BI, especially in winter. What we do sometimes get are boats of different sizes sailing past. This is by no means an everyday occurrence, and spotting a ship on the horizon is every bit as exciting as spotting a whale. A while ago, myself and Jess were collecting diet samples in a Black Browed albatross colony on the side of Molly Hill when we spotted a small yacht sailing around the north cliffs of BI. The swell was enormous and the little yacht was pitching and rolling along every axis. Considering how close to us they were, I decided to play the friendly neighbour, and radioed them to say hello (we all carry walkie talkies when out and about). Without knowing the name of the boat I radioed “Yacht, yacht. This is Bird Island, Bird Island”. Thankfully they understood English and a friendly Englishman replied “Bird Island, Bird Island, this is yacht (he may have been smirking when he said this) Pelagic Australis, Pelagic Australis”. We then had a friendly chat and joked about how seasick some of their crew were, and how mercilessly the rest of the crew were teasing them. I asked what brought them to our neighbourhood, and after joking (we hope) that they were invading Bird Island, they told us they were down as part of the rat eradication project on South Georgia. We tried to point out to them where we were standing, and they tried to point out a Southern Right whale between us and the yacht, but to no avail. We then wished them good luck on the rest of their trip (looking at the seas ahead of them they needed it) and they said they’d call again on their way back in a couple weeks time.
Lo and behold, two weeks later, I’d strolled out to the end of the jetty to practise my photography (still learning) when I saw a yacht hanging around just outside the bay. I radioed again and it was our friends on the Pelagic Australis once again. This time they’d sailed close enough to wave hello. Again, we had a nice chat about rats, seals, and wanderers, and even made some small talk about the weather, before waving goodbye as they set sail for home. 

The crew of the Pelagic Australis stopping by to wave hello (photo by Cian Luck)

The Pelagic Australis setting sail for home, escorted by wanderers (photo by Cian Luck)

Meet the Neighbours: Antarctic Fur Seals

Out of all the animals on Bird Island, the furries are the ones I know best. It’s my job to work with them, but during summer they interject themselves into everyone’s lives. During the breeding season, the beach in front of base fills entirely with fighting males and pupping females, and as the season progresses the beach and base get taken over by packs of marauding puppies.

The males

Let’s start with the big fellas. Around early November time, the males start arriving ashore and establishing territories. Before the ladies arrive, the beaches become dotted with large, regularly spaced, male fur seals. The males are powerhouses of muscle, and they fight tooth and nail to defend their patch of beach. The damage they do to each other defending their territories is unbelievable. Exposed skulls aren’t unusual. The drive to reproduce is so strong that by the end of the season many males have died from injuries or pure exhaustion. The prime real estate seems to be near the water, above the tide line. The males below the waterline or near the grass tend to be smaller and have fewer girlfriends. We call these smaller males psycho-sized, as they seem to suffer from small man syndrome and are the most likely to give you a chase.

I can’t say that any of the big males are particularly friendly, but I met an odd one earlier in the year. One sunny (it happens sometimes) afternoon I was having lunch on the picnic bench out front. While I was eating, a fair sized male approached from behind. By the time I noticed he was already close and he wasn’t being in any way aggressive so I just sat (very) still. He then gave me a sniff and shuffled up beside me, before resting his enormous head on the bench next to me, and giving me puppy dog eyes. He seemed happy to rest like this for some time before lying on the ground with his head by my feet, and going to sleep. At which point I slowly and surely backed away with lunch in hand. He was in no way harmless, but he didn’t seem to have any harmful intentions. I think I was just in his favourite napping spot.

Top to bottom: Early territorial males await the arrival of the females, while the penguins keep them company (photo by Cian Luck). A male guards his girlfriends (photo by Cian Luck). The beach in front of base during breeding season; not even at its busiest (photo by Jess Walkup)

The females

The females are half the size of the males but have nearly as much aggro. Around mid-November, the females start showing up on the beaches and get immediately hassled by every male they pass. If a female enters a male’s territory he tends to do everything he can to block her leaving, and they’re nothing if not persistent. Once she finds a spot she likes, or a male she can’t evade, she settles down, and within the next day or two pops out a squeaking, furry puppy.

A week later the female leaves the puppy for the first time and heads off to sea to feed. For the next few months the mum will keep this up, feeding herself at sea, then coming ashore to feed her pup. The length of time she spends at sea varies between seals and years, but 3-5 days is typical, and the first trip is the longest. Once she gets back to shore she starts screaming for her pup. These screams are shrill, loud, and often go on through the night (outside our bedroom windows). The sound they make is hard to describe, but it you’ve seen that YouTube video where someone’s dubbed a Taylor Swift song with the sound of screaming goats, those screams are close enough. Once the puppies hear their mum returning, they go nuts. We often stopped to watch reunions as the puppies shook violently with excitement, and squeaked and shouted when they reunited with mum. Early on, the mums and pups stay near the birth site, but as the season goes on the mums lead the pups further and further into the tussock grass, until you start meeting them up the hills; 100m above sea level.
A proud mother with her overly attached pup (photo by Cian Luck)
The puppies

And then there are the puppies. They’re just the best. As I write this in May, the puppies (born only in December) have left. It was a sad affair to see them leave but it was a joy to watch them grow up enough to strike out on their own. When they’re first born they tend not to wander far from mum and milk, and they seem a bit lost the first time their mum goes to sea, but by the second of third trip you can find them roaming the beach, clambering up rocks, and exploring.

They’re super curious at this stage. I lay down out back to rest once and before I knew it I had a puppy clambering over me. Soon they learn to playfight and once they start they only stop to eat, sleep, and scratch. Often you can see small gangs of puppies running up and down the beach, looking for trouble. They learn to swim and within a day go from flapping about frantically, like a toddler in a paddling pool, to gliding through the water with some grace. Then it’s time to moult their puppy fur and this transformation is a funny one. A pre-moult puppy, black and fluffy, is cute. A post-moult puppy, grey and sleek, is cute. A moulting puppy is hilarious. They start to lose their long puppy hair around the eyebrows and before long most of the puppies are balding like Charles Darwin. The puppies continue to moult until they’re left only with hairy David Hasselhoff chests, and then eventually have a smooth, sleek coat of short grey fur. I could go on and on about how brilliant and adorable puppies are but pictures tell a better story.

Just a handful of my favourite puppy pictures. Cheers to Jerry for the pic of a moulting/balding pup (rest of the photos by Cian Luck)
Fur seals have great personalities that become more apparent the more time you spend with them. Some of them might be a bit on the angry side but they have lots of endearing qualities too.

Things fur seals love:
  • Sleeping
  • Playfighting
  • Scratching - they really love scratching
  • Comfy beds
  • Snow and ice - even better is scratching on ice
Fur seals doing what they love (photos by Cian Luck)

Things fur seals don’t love
  • Getting wet – Funnily enough, on rainy days you can see a steady stream of them heading for the sea, and if the ground’s wet they’ll be jostling to find a loftier space to sleep.
  • Me 
Fur seals showing their equal dislike for soggy ground and yours truly (photos by Cian Luck)

But I’m working on this last one

A friendly youngster giving my gloved hand a shniff (photo by Cian Luck)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Hello there

I created this blog before I left Ireland, back in early November. This is my first entry. Better late than never. I guess a quick introduction is in order. Hi, my name’s Cian Luck. I work for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), as a Zoological Field Assistant on Bird Island. I’ve been living here on Bird Island since November 2013 and I’ll continue to do so until around March 2015. My main role is to maintain the long term monitoring of the resident Antarctic Fur Seal population and the visiting Leopard Seals who show up in winter. I’m continuing work which started in the eighties.

A quick introduction to the island I’m lucky enough to call home. Bird Island is a small island off the western tip of South Georgia, in the Southern Ocean. It measures just under 5 kilometres long and 800m wide at its narrowest point. While its latitude puts it at 54°South we have the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) to thank for bringing the Antarctic weather to our doorstep. There are a couple things that make Bird Island such a unique and interesting dot in the Southern Ocean.

A view of Bird Island taken from the top to Tonc, looking back towards La Roche, and South Georgia in the distance (photo by Jerry Gillham)
  1. Bird Island is rat free. South Georgia has long had a huge rat infestation problem (since the old whalers brought them ashore). The rats decimated any ground nesting birds they came across, which was a lot. Bird Island is a rat free haven, home to a wide range of bird species, none quite as charismatic as the enormous and elegant Wandering Albatross. Roughly 10% of the world’s wanderers call Bird Island home.
  2. Much of the wildlife (seals and penguins) on Bird Island is dependent on krill. While the waters around BI have a multitude of krill, none of it breeds here, but instead breeds down near the Antarctic continent, and is then swept up to us by the ACC.
In summer we can hold up to 10-12 on base and in winter we fall down to 4 people. Our nearest human neighbours are the folks at the BAS base at King Edward Point (KEP) over on South Georgia (about 8 hours away by ship), and after that the nearest humans are 1,000km away in the Falkland Islands. Instead we’re surrounded by hundreds and thousands of seals, penguins, and birds of all sorts. Our base sits on Freshwater Beach. During the fur seal breeding season we get surrounded on all sides by BIG rowdy males, females calling for their pups, and puppies shouting back. Sleep can be hard to come by at first.

During the summer, pretty much all of my time is taken up with the fur seals, with December being a particularly busy month. We have a Special Study Beach (SSB, sorry about all the acronyms, you’ll catch on quick) that’s an enclosed section of beach with a raised gantry that allows me to access the seals without losing an arm or leg. Throughout the breeding season I visit this beach twice a day, every day. Among many other things, I map out which males are holding territories where on the beach, how many females are on the beach each day, and each pup born on the beach gets weighed, sexed, and is given an individual PIT tag (similar to the microchip you might put in your dog). We also give the pups flipper tags once they’re a bit more grown up, in the hope that we can identify the ones that survive long enough to come back and breed on SSB in later years.

A snow covered Special Study Beach on Christmas Eve, and a male fur seal stubbornly defending his territory against the tide on SSB (photos by Cian Luck)
Fur seals make brilliant mums, but they’re just not big enough to stay with the pups the whole time from birth to weaning. They have to go to regularly go to sea to feed and return with fresh milk to feed the pup. Each year we monitor how long the mothers leave the pups unattended by fitting a number of mums with radio transmitter tags (we call them Txs) that tell us when she’s ashore and she’s at sea.

Puppies play while the mums are away (photo by Cian Luck)
On top of this, we constantly monitor the fur seal diets by collecting fresh scats each week and sifting through the contents. Not only is this a glamorous job but it’s hugely insightful. By looking at the mean size of the krill in the scats we can keep tabs on the health of the krill stock the seals are feeding on.

There’s plenty more fur seal work that keeps me out of trouble for the summer but those are the big three jobs. In winter, my focus changes from fur seals to leopard seals, which only arrive around May. My main job then is to do the daily leopard seal round where I walk the same route along the beaches and photograph any leopard seals I meet. This allows us to build a comprehensive photo-ID database, which we can then use to identify any returning leopard seals and new faces. I haven’t met a lep yet but if I meet any new leopard seals this year, then I could well be the first human they’ve ever seen.

Oops... Summer's over

Well it’s now winter. I never did get round to starting this blog in summer, but while the fur seals were keeping me busy I was thankful to have enough time to sleep, and blog writing fell down my list of priorities a bit. Sorry that there are no entries here from summer, but maybe a brief synopsis of how it went will do.

I arrived in mid November, as the furry breeding season was just kick starting. Within a week the first pup had born at SSB and Hannah and I (the other half of the seal team; my predecessor, teacher, and good friend) got busier in a hurry after that. Before that happened, I managed to get out and see a bit of the island before the seals kept me glued to the beaches. The first time I walked around the island I swore profusely. It’s hard to believe how majestic and beautiful this island really is until you see it and my pictures can’t do it justice. One of the most jaw dropping sites I saw that week was Big Mac; the world’s second largest Macaroni penguin colony (home to 80,000 or so squaking penguins).

My first trip to Big Mac. The noise and smell are just as impressive as the sight of 80,000 Macaronis (photos by Jerry Gillham and Cian Luck)
As the season tends to pick up in a hurry after first call, there’s a pretty steep learning curve for the incoming seal assistant. It was hard to keep up, but thankfully Hannah was a patient teacher, and in no time we were working at full speed, getting through our SSB rounds in the mornings and evenings, and catching females for Tx deployments in between. By the time my birthday came round we were both feeling weary and ready to unwind. Jess and Steph made me the most amazing seal-shaped birthday cake, and Rob fired up the hot-tub which was just what we all needed (even if it was a little cramped with 7 of us squeezed in).

My seal birthday cake, complete with flipper tags, that Jess and Steph made for me (photo by Cian Luck)
Three days later it was Christmas. It was my first Christmas away from home and it was definitely a first in many ways. It was also one of my favourites Christmases. Hannah and I still had our SSB rounds to do but we tried to take the rest of the day off with everyone else. We then opened presents, exchanged handmade cards, had an absolute banquet for dinner, and played twister until the early hours.

New Year’s was another memorable one. We had a fancy dress party with Bird Island themed cocktails and then at midnight we dashed through the seals to set off flares from the end of the jetty. We had cracking weather the next day so myself, Hannah, Adam, Jess, and Steph decided to shake off the New Years eve headaches by climbing La Roche (the highest peak on BI). The view from the top (356m above the crashing waves) was spectacular. From our picnic spot we spotted a Southern Right Whale feeding off the north cliffs, as well as two enormous (at least the size of BI) ice bergs on the horizon.

New Years Eve fancy dress party and New Years Day hike to the top of La Roche (photos by Jess Walkup and Stephanie Winnard)
It seemed like every other week we had a fancy dress party, or some other event. Once some reinforcements had arrived on base (tradesmen to build a bulk fuel system for the base) we challenged the BAS base at Signy Island to a darts match. To get Skype to work over our internet connection we had to shut down every other phone and computer on base. Once we made contact we played three games of 501 with a crate of beer going to the winners. We won 2 games to 1 and Signy graciously delivered on their promise at last call.

We don’t get many visitors here at BI. Because of the wildlife risk of introducing rats, the South Georgia Government are very strict in controlling who can and can’t land on BI. That’s we everyone was all the more excited to host the BBC for a week in February. Steve Backshall and crew came to film a whole episode of Deadly Pole to Pole here on BI. They wanted to film fur seals, Giant Petrels, Skuas, Prions, and wanderers. Hannah and I showed them round on their first day and tried to find them as big and impressive a male as we could muster (easier said than done as most the big males had left by mid January). We managed to find them a couple decent males on Evermann Cove and they got some good footage. They filmed loads of cool stuff, including some cracking shots of some of the bigger birds scavenging on a seal carcass, but I won’t give too much away. The Bird Island episode should be out on CBBC in the summer (northern hemisphere) and out on BBC 1 sometime in September. Once the guys had finished filming we fired up the BBQ and had them all round for dinner before they set off to shoot the next episode on South Georgia.
Steve Backshall and me at our post-filming BBQ. Nice chap (photo by Cian Luck)
Time moves strangely on BI and it seemed not long after the BBC had left that we were getting ready for Hannah, Steph, and this year’s summer crew to leave. The run up to last call was a mad flurry of packing boxes, writing bills of lading, sorting import and export permits, and before we knew it, saying our goodbyes. Hannah and Steph handed over the seal and albatross jobs to me and Jess respectively. I don’t think either of us could have asked for better teachers and partners in crime. Between the girls and the terrific summer crew, who were the best support and most fun we could ask for, it was sad to see such a great group leave. After we’d waved off the ship, Jerry, Jess, Rob, and I walked back to the suddenly spacious base and began settling in for winter. Sure what could go wrong?